Posts Tagged ‘The Innocence Project’

Today in Wrongful Conviction History: February 4

Alejandra de la Fuente — February 04, 2016 @ 10:00 AM — Comments (0)

Happy exoneration anniversary Jerrell Bell and Freddie Peacock!

Jerrell was exonerated in Texas in 2014.

Freddie was exonerated in New York in 2010 with help from the Innocence Project.


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Hayne and West: Mississippi’s Corrupt Duo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Judge Ken Anderson Faces Criminal Charges

Alejandra de la Fuente — April 26, 2013 @ 1:37 PM — Comments (1)

In February, Michael Morton submitted a court of inquiry to the State of Texas regarding the conduct of the leading prosecutor in his case.  On Friday, April 19, 2013, a Texas judge decided that Ken Anderson, former district attorney and now judge, would face criminal charges for his improper behavior in 1987.

Barry Scheck, co-founder of The Innocence Project, stated in The Innocence Project press release,

“We believe this is a landmark case. I know that good prosecutors, and that’s most of them, agree that it’s important Judge Anderson be held accountable for the willful misconduct that caused Michael Morton to lose 25 years of his life.”

“It’s extremely rare for prosecutors to be punished for deliberately hiding exculpatory evidence, much less face criminal charges. But this outcome will hopefully usher in a new era of oversight to ensure that prosecutors live up to their ethical obligations.”

The court as well as District Judge Louis Sterns, who was presiding over the case, decided Anderson should face charges for withholding exculpatory evidence from the defense resulting in Morton’s wrongful conviction after determining the Anderson was aware of the Judge’s trial orders.

It is reassuring to know that prosecutors who engage in ethical and legal misconduct are being held accountable for their actions. The reformation of the criminal justice system is going to take time but steps in the right direction such as The Prosecutorial Oversight Campaign  are crucial in the change towards a better system. It is important every individual of the law continually upholds the law and those who do not are rightfully held accountable.

In the press release, Nina Morrison, a Senior Staff Attorney with the Innocence Project, stated,

“Hopefully this case will serve as a wake-up call to prosecutors across the nation that there are real consequences for ignoring the ethical rules that have been established to ensure that everyone gets a fair trial.”

Although criminal charges against prosecutors are rare, the success of Morton’s court of inquiry demonstrates the justice the system owes him for the miscarriage of justice that he received for 25 years.

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The Real Perpetrator Convicted – 27 Years Later

Alejandra de la Fuente — April 16, 2013 @ 10:30 AM — Comments (0)

Since his exoneration in 2011, Michael Morton has recently seen the inside of a courtroom in very different roles. First as an observer in the court of inquiry proceedings to hold the prosecutor responsible for his conviction, Ken Anderson, accountable for his wrongful incarceration. Then a second time as a family member of the victim as Mark Alan Norwood was tried for Christine Morton’s murder.

The DNA from the bloody bandana that exonerated Michael Mortion when cross-referenced in a national database matched Mark Alan Norwood, who was in the system for his long criminal history. Sometimes if DNA is run through the database, the matching result will point to another individual. Typically the person is either dead or has been convicted of another crime. Therefore the trail ends with the wrongfully convicted person being exonerated of the crime. In Morton’s case, Norwood was still in the general population and the prosecution had a strong enough case to bring him to trial.

Opening statements in the Norwood trail began on Tuesday, March 19, 2013. The trial was held in San Angelo after being moved from Williamson County, near Austin, because of publicity in the case. The Texas Attorney General’s Office handled the prosecution and were not seeking the death penalty.

On March 27th, the San Angelo jurors found Mark Alan Norwood guilty for the 1986 murder of Christine Morton. Greg Abbott is the Texas Attorney General whose office dealt directly with Norwood’s prosecution made a statement to Fox News, saying “no verdict can bring back Christine Morton’s life or recover the devastating years that her husband Michael Morton spent unjustly imprisoned for her murder.” Norwood was convicted and sentenced to life in prison with the chance of parole after 15 years.

Morton’s prosecution in 1987 fought long and hard to place Michael Morton behind bars for the murder of his wife; only for him to be exonerated nearly 25 years later. The entire time Morton was wrongfully imprisoned, Christine’s real killer was free to go about his daily life.

When a false confession is made, when evidence is hidden from the defense, when prosecutors seek a conviction rather than search for the truth, many innocent men and women are wrongfully convicted leaving the real perpetrators with life on the outside.

The Texas Tribune provides a timeline from Christine’s death up until Norwood’s conviction.

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Reformation of an Imperfect System

Alejandra de la Fuente — February 22, 2013 @ 4:37 PM — Comments (0)

In light of more than 300 exonerations throughout the United States, the reformation of the criminal justice system has become a steady process in many states. Proposals for laws and regulations are starting to appear on the floor of various state Senates and House of Representatives throughout the country. These laws are slowly being implemented within the criminal justice system in an effort to reduce the amount of wrongful convictions.

The Washington Post opens,

“Courts and police in the nation’s capital will change how they conduct lineups of suspects, when they notify defendants about informants and how long they retain criminal trial records, all in response to errors that have put innocent people in prison.

A task force created by D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Lee F. Satterfield recommended that police use computers and staff not associated with a particular case to administer photo lineups to prevent influencing potential witnesses.

The court acknowledged that DNA often has cleared defendants long after their convictions, so officials will by March begin keeping trial records permanently rather than destroying them after 10 years.”

Police are not the only ones reforming current procedures. Legal professionals are also having to alter their ways of questioning and proceeding in a criminal trial.

An open discovery bill has been filed in the Texas House of Representatives that demands that both the defense and prosecution in criminal cases must have open files towards to opposing side. If passed and signed into law, it would hopefully eliminate the withholding of exculpatory evidence by the prosecution.

In The Texas Tribune, spokeswoman Rebecca Bernhardt for the Texas Defender Service states,

“The more sharing, the more broad, automatic disclosure that happens in advance enough of the trial for the defense to be able to prepare their case, the more fair criminal trials are going to be.”

The recent effort to pass Texas House Bill 1426 and the court of inquiry against Judge Anderson has dramatically highlighted the severe problems that exist in the Texas criminal justice system.  In the same Texas Tribune article, Polk County District Attorney Lee Hon says,

“It’s going to be a very timely discussion in view of everything that has gone on in Williamson County and some of the other exoneration cases…I think both sides could definitely stand to be a little more transparent.”

Innocence projects nationwide hope to see reforms take place in many different components of the criminal justice system – starting with the investigation, interrogation and identification of a suspect to improved instructions for juries. Understanding that reforming an entire system does not happen over night is important.  We certainly hope that as the reformation continues, the number of wrongful convictions decrease.

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Anderson’s Accountability

Alejandra de la Fuente — February 21, 2013 @ 4:33 PM — Comments (3)

In August 2011 post-conviction DNA testing proved Michael Morton an innocent man. After spending nearly 25 years behind bars for the wrongful conviction of the murder of his wife Christine, Morton was finally able to regain the life that he had left behind. Morton has since filed a court of inquiry against Ken Anderson, the district attorney whose prosecution led to Morton’s wrongful conviction. Ken Anderson now serves as a judge for the State of Texas and denies that any misconduct occurred during Morton’s trial in 1987.

The Huffington Post defined a court of inquiry as ” a rarely used proceeding held when officials or public servants are accused of wrongdoing.” In a system where the officials are highly protected, a court of inquiry call into question the actions of those in the prosecution.

Christine Morton was beaten to death with a wooden object in the morning in August 1986. The lead investigator of the crime collected evidence that included: a police report of neighbors claiming that a man owning a green van frequented the area around the Morton home around the time of the murder, a report of the couple’s young son, Eric, who was a witness to the horrific murder of his mother claiming that a “monster”, not his father, had killed his mother while his father was gone, unidentified fingerprints as well as an unidentified foot print in the backyard. There was a substantial amount of evidence indicating that Morton had not committed the murder. However, the defense was not made aware of any of this evidence; and hence the jury did not hear any of it. The jury convicted Morton on circumstantial evidence. He was sentenced to a life in prison.

The Texas Tribune states, “Anderson insisted that there was no judge’s order requiring him to turn over that evidence. He also argued that although he was not required under law or by a judge’s order to give Morton’s lawyers the transcript or the green van report that he must have told them about it. He said he had no “independent recollection” of doing so, but faulted Morton’s lawyers for not following up on the information.”

Throughout the court of inquiry hearings, Anderson continually denied concealing exculpatory evidence and simply claims the justice system “screwed up.” If Morton was held accountable for a crime he did not commit, Anderson needs to face the same accountability. Anderson wrongfully stole 25 years from a man in which a multitude of evidence proved he was innocent. Rather than admit the system was prosecuting the wrong individual, Anderson chose to suppress the evidence and continue with legal proceedings.

Discussing Anderson and the case, Morton stated,  “I think we saw someone who is still struggling with denial and anger,” he said, “and possibly a man who has spent at least three decades in a position of power and for the first time has had to answer for his actions, and he’s very uncomfortable with that.”

As the proceeding came to a close Friday, February 8, the Judge presiding over the case is waiting on both the defense and the prosecution to file additional papers. His decision should be made within the next couple of months.

For now the public is left to question, was Morton’s conviction a result of prosecutorial misconduct or is Anderson just as innocent as he claims?

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A Matter of Justice

Alejandra de la Fuente — February 19, 2013 @ 10:45 AM — Comments (1)

Kentucky Senate Bill 23 has unanimously been passed allowing those in prison to seek post conviction DNA-testing in order to prove their innocence. In The Morehead News, the sponsor of Bill 23 Senator John Schickel claimed, “it was a matter of justice.”

Currently Kentucky law only allows for those on death row to seek DNA testing. This bill would expand access to all those serving time in prison with certain exceptions. Convicted felons who pled guilty or took an Alford plea – a defendant does not admit guilt but recognizes the prosecution has sufficient evidence to obtain a conviction – at trial are excluded in an amendment of the bill. A similar bill in the House does not include these exclusions.

Many in the Senate did not approve of the amendment knowing without a doubt that many wrongful convictions are a result of false confessions. However, the approval of the bill was pushed as a step forward towards a improving an imperfect justice system.

In the past bills similar to Kentucky Senate Bill 23 were presented but did not make it beyond the Senate floor. The articles continues as Senator Robin Webb explained her support of the bill and claimed the bill, “is not perfect but it is a great, great start.”

Bills such as Kentucky Senate Bill 23 are small examples of  major reform and improvement for the criminal justice system. As more of these bills pass in certain states in the US, the light at the end of the tunnel for those wrongfully convicted gets larger.

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When Does the Fight Stop? – The Role of the Prosecution

Alejandra de la Fuente — February 14, 2013 @ 10:17 AM — Comments (1)

It wasn’t long after Douglas Prade was exonerated of murder that prosecutors for the State of Ohio made known their intentions to appeal the overturned conviction. Postconviction DNA testing proved Prade did not kill his ex-wife, Margo Prade, in November of 1997. However the prosecution continues to push hard the idea that Prade could in fact be Margo’s murderer.

In an Los Angeles Times article, Keith Findley, president of the Innocence Network, said, “Prosecutors have enormous power over all of our lives, . . . yet no other profession is shielded from the complete lack of accountability.” As representatives of the State, the prosecution must present a case that proves a person guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But doesn’t their responsibility also include making sure the wrong person is not convicted? And correcting the wrong if the wrong person is?

Innocence projects get involved after the trial, conviction and all of the appeals have been exhausted. There has to be a very compelling reason such as newly discovered evidence to open the door to re-visit a conviction. During this phase, the prosecution has the ability to agree to DNA testing–testing that innocence projects pay for, so there is no expense to the State–and  avoid needless litigation just to obtain this vital science. According to the Innocence Network, nationally 19% of prosecutors oppose DNA testing when it requested by an individual in prison. In Florida, the experience of the Innocence Project of Florida (“IPF”) far outpaces the national averages.  For example, in 2011-2012, IPF has requested DNA testing on behalf of clients potentially wrongfully convicted in 22 cases and prosecutors have only agreed to DNA testing once. They have opposed testing 21 out of 22 times or 95% of the time.  This kind of obstruction is an organized form of prosecutorial misconduct, akin to hiding evidence of innocence.

Not only does this misconduct include the effort of hiding evidence that leads to wrongful convictions or preventing a potentially innocent person from getting DNA testing that could prove their innocence, it also includes continuing to fight after the defense has presented sufficient evidence indicating innocence.  There are many reasons and opinions as to why a prosecutor would continue to fight, but it comes down to admitting that a mistake was made. It is a difficult task to admit a wrongdoing; however is the preservation of a wrongful conviction worth keeping an innocent person in prison? After a conviction has been overturned and innocence declared, isn’t the deliberative thoughtful, diligent decision by a judge that a conviction is wrongful enough to give the case up and let the innocent individual go home? Why is it so important that the prosecution appeals the judge’s ruling? The Plain Dealer, a newspaper in Cleveland, Ohio, stated:

“Because the judge might be wrong,” said John Murphy, the executive director of the prosecuting attorney association. “That’s why we have appellate courts. If we believe there is a genuine issue, we have to take it to the appeals courts.”

Many will question whether prosecutors are out to seek justice, as they are sworn to do, or to win cases at all costs. These questions arise when solid DNA testing proves that the convicted person did not commit the crime and then prosecutors turn right around to fight vigorously against the exoneration and against any claim of innocence. The Center for the Global Study of Wrongful Convictions at the University of Cincinnati College of Law stated:

“tragically, when a prosecutor chooses to protect a verdict rather than fulfill his or her first responsibility to seek the truth and true justice, the real perpetrator—even if a violent murderer—can get a free pass.”

When does the focus shift from convicting an innocent man to identifying the real perpetrator?

In an Illinois double murder case, Daniel Taylor was convicted of committing a crime at 8:45 p.m on November 16, 1992. However police records show that Taylor was under arrest for disorderly conduct from 6:45 p.m. to 10 p.m that night, undermining the contentions of the prosecution that Taylor would have have the opportunity to commit the crime. The Chicago Sun-Times stated:

“seven 23rd District police personnel backed Taylor’s lockup alibi. Those records should have been turned over to the defense at the time of the trial, but Taylor’s trial lawyers say they were not.” … “An officer on guard that night claimed ” it’s just not possible that Taylor was freed or escaped earlier than 10 p.m., as prosecutors suggested at trial. Too many personnel from two different watches would have had to conspire to falsify the records, he says.”

For Daniel Taylor, it is simply not possible that he could have committed the murder as prosecutors are charging. Taylor attorneys returned to court last week seeking the right to continue to appeal his case. Northwestern Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions released an article entitled Still Imprisoned Despite Jail Alibi, which highlighted the assertion by State Attorney Anita Alvarez that her office has experienced “a shift in philosophy” and pledged to be “more open to the possibility that police and prosecutors had sent an innocent person to prison.” In her announcement, it was said the state’s attorney’s office was “about always seeking justice,” not simply “racking up convictions.” Taking a brief look into the evidence supporting the wrongful conviction of Daniel Taylor, can one believe that this statement is entirely true?

In convictions such as Douglas Prade and Daniel Taylor, the prosecutorial misconduct played significant roles at different times throughout the proceedings. Unfortunately, these two men will fight for a long time in order to find the freedom the justice system owes them. Prade was exonerated last month after a hearing when the judge ordered his immediately release claiming “no reasonable juror, considering all available evidence, would be firmly convinced that Prade was guilty of aggravated murder.” However Prade is still facing the appeals by the prosecution. Daniel Taylor is still awaiting his grant for re-trial in hopes that one day he will be declared an innocent man. In an imperfect system, one can only hope the intentions of those in the justice system are reputable and in the end, justice will be served.

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Former Police Captain Exonerated After 15 Years in Ohio Prison

Alejandra de la Fuente — January 30, 2013 @ 10:33 AM — Comments (0)

Persons who have been wrongfully convicted often speak of what kept them going while incarcerated. Some find hope through music, their families, or higher powers. For Douglas Prade, it was a diary. In it contained the names of all the students who worked on his case during the past ten years. Every year he would add new names and cross out previous ones, giving him hope that one day he would be a free man.

After many years of appeals and applications for post-conviction DNA, Prade was declared innocent and walked out court a free man on January 29, 2013 for the murder of his wife. Congratulations to all involved. The Ohio Innocence Project worked feverishly for years in order to produce a compelling case with DNA results against the State of Ohio for his wrongful conviction.

Margo Prade was a highly respected doctor and Doug Prade was a police captain awaiting a promotion to become Akron, Ohio’s newest police chief.

In November of 1997, Dr. Margo Prade was found fatally shot in her car outside her medical facility in Akron. Testimony from two eyewitnesses that placed him at the scene of the crime as well as a forensic dentist claiming the bite mark on Margo’s jacket belonged to Doug, left him with little hope.

In 1998, Judge Mary Spicer sentenced Douglas to a life in prison for aggravated murder.

As one of the largest high profile murder cases in Ohio, Douglas Prade maintained his innocence. Douglas filed multiple applications for post-conviction DNA testing. In 2010, testing was granted; the Court declared new methods had arose which had invalidated previous DNA testing done in the murder case. After expert testimony and questioning was completed, Judge Judy Hunter claimed, “the evidence was clear and convincing.” The DNA testing performed on the sleeve of Margo’s lab coat eliminated the possibility of Douglas as the victim’s killer. In that moment, the Court overturned his convictions and was ordered to be released from prison.

Congratulations to Douglas Prade and to the Ohio Innocence Project as their hard work and dedication made this exoneration possible.

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Together as One Unified Voice

Alejandra de la Fuente — January 28, 2013 @ 12:35 PM — Comments (0)

Since The Innocence Project was founded by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld in 1992, many innocence organizations have been formed. These organizations operate independently and collaboratively. It is the collaboration that creates the Innocence Network. The mission statement of the Network reads, “The Innocence Network is an affiliation of organizations dedicated to providing pro bono legal and investigative services to individuals seeking to prove innocence of crimes for which they have been convicted and working to redress the causes of wrongful convictions.” Currently there are more than 50 member organizations.

From judicial reformations to exonerations, the Innocence Network is the combination of efforts for the majority of the Innocence Projects around the world. Each project is working towards the same goal and having great success. The Innocence Network reported 22 exonerations as well as its 300th exoneration due to DNA testing in 2012. The member organizations are consistently working through different avenues in order to achieve justice for those wrongfully convicted.

The Innocence Network was established on the premise that a standardization of basic law practices as well as the meeting of a minimum criteria must be in place in order to gain the Innocence Project name. While each innocence organization is different on its own, the expansion of the Network allows for more organizations to come together in an effort to rectify an imperfect criminal justice system.

In 2012 Innocence Network Annual Report, it was noted that “While Network projects uses a wide variety of tactics to prove innocence in these cases, it is noteworthy that nearly half continue to be DNA exonerations.” IPF only accepts cases that have biological evidence that can be tested for DNA. While there are many other Innocence Network members like us, some members choose to accept non-DNA cases just as some members have sentence requirements in order for a case to be accepted. From California across the Atlantic as far as The Netherlands, the Innocence Network members have the chance to come together as different organizations as one unified voice.

To find out more about the Innocence Network, click here.

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