Posts Tagged ‘unreliable witness testimony’

Motivated by Innocence, Jabbar Collins Awarded $13 Million

Alejandra de la Fuente — October 22, 2014 @ 10:56 AM — Comments (0)

Jabbar Collins was wrongfully convicted at age 20 of the murder of a rabbi in New York.  Highly motivated by his innocence, Collins, who dropped out of school when he was 16, spent countless hours in the prison library learning what he needed to know to request case documents and trial transcripts and represent himself pro se.  Last summer, with the help of his lawyer, Collins was awarded a $10 million settlement by New York City and another $3 million by the State of New York.

Attorney Joel Rudin, who represents Collins, says the $13 million total ties the record amount for a wrongfully convicted defendant in New York City.

In 1994, Collins was arrested for the murder of a rabbi in Brooklyn, New York, during a robbery.  The three witnesses who testified against him had been coerced and bribed by the prosecutor, although during Collins’ trial, the defense was assured that these confidential informants received nothing in exchange for their testimony.

Although a rogue prosecutor eager to “solve” a high-profile slaying is blamed for Collins’ conviction, his case provided support for claims that the office of former Brooklyn district attorney Charles J. Hynes didn’t adequately rein in prosecutors who broke the rules.

Under Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson, who ran his election campaign on the promise that he would clean up the string of wrongful convictions and other shenanigans that occurred during Hynes tenure, the City and State of New York have paid out nearly $20 million and are currently being sued for more than $200 million.


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California Woman Exonerated After 17 Years

Alejandra de la Fuente — October 13, 2014 @ 5:08 PM — Comments (0)

On Friday, October 10, 2014, Susan Marie Mellen was formally exonerated of murder in Torrance, California, after spending 17 years wrongfully incarcerated.  A combination of an unreliable witness, who was well known as a habitual liar by the police, and mistakes made by the police detective, who was also responsible for a 1994 case that resulted in the convictions of two men who were subsequently exonerated.

“I believe she is innocent,” California Superior Court Judge Mark Arnold said. “For that reason I believe in this case the justice system failed.”

Despite what Mellen called a “cruel punishment” where she cried herself to sleep each night, she did not give up hope.  Amazingly, she holds no grudge against those who wrongfully convicted her with a sentence of life without parole.  She said, “I always forgave my enemies.  Even your haters, you have to forgive them and sometimes you have to thank them because they bring you closer to God.”

Mellen was arrested in 1997 for killing a homeless man who was staying in the same house where Mellen was living.  A woman known for giving baseless tips to the police testified that Mellen had confessed to the crime — and it was on her testimony that Mellen’s conviction rested.  Through representation by Innocence Matters, Mellen’s conviction was overturned and she was at long last exonerated.

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The Innocent Prisoner’s Dilemma: The Everton Wagstaffe Case

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Preserved DNA exonerates after 34 years

Alejandra de la Fuente — May 30, 2012 @ 11:05 AM — Comments (0)

Exoneration in Virginia expedited by high court

Bennett Barbour becomes the most recent case of an exoneration thanks to the good file-keeping of DNA evidence from cases before testing existed (1973-1988) by forensic scientist Mary Jane Burton . Barbour was convicted in 1978 and will likely seek compensation for his 4.5 years of time served–he got out on parole in 1983. The high court granted an immediate writ of actual innocence, only the third time this has ever been done. Another convicted rapist, James Moses Glass Jr., who served out another rape sentence by 2009 will go to trial soon, as the DNA was linked to him instead.

Hopefully it does not take a picture-perfect exoneration like this one, in that a new suspect was identified, to get the high court to treat wrongful convictions with equal severity. As a preventative measure, more weight does need to be given to witness misidentification. One of Barbour’s attorney’s, Deidre Enright, said “there will be other men and women wrongfully convicted in Virginia based on incorrect eyewitness identifications, and DNA will not always be present to exonerate them.”

More on this story here.

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Supreme Court Says Eyewitness Evidence Requires No Special Caution

Alejandra de la Fuente — January 12, 2012 @ 6:20 PM — Comments (1)

On Wednesday the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that eyewitness evidence requires no extra cautions or inquiry to make it admissible. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion of the Court and in the decision said that there is no reason to treat eyewitness identification as any different from other potentially flawed evidence. The opinion states, only when “there is ‘a very substantial likelihood of irreparable misidentification,’ Simmons v. United States, 390 U. S. 377, 384 (1968), the judge must disallow presentation of the evidence at trial.”

The truth is that there is always a very substantial likelihood of irreparable misidentification. Eyewitness misidentifications are the leading cause of wrongful convictions, and there is 30 years of social science evidence proving that eyewitnesses often make mistakes, according to the Innocence Project.

This new opinion upholds previous decisions from cases such as such as Neil v. Biggers, 409 U. S. 188 (1972) and Manson v. Brathwaite, 432 U. S. 98, 111–112 (1977), and keeps the due process test restricted only to errors made by law enforcement officers.

While Ginsburg said that eyewitness testimony is no different than any other potentially flawed testimony, that is simply false. Eyewitness testimony is different than other types of evidence. Humans, especially those under pressure, make mistakes. Further, this opinion seems to ignore the weight with which eyewitness identifications are held by most juries. These identifications tend to be extremely convincing with juries, and as a result held as more reliable or valuable than other evidence. These facts show that eyewitness IDs are in fact different than other types of testimony and evidence, and should thus be treated as such.

In taking up this case, according to the Court’s opinion, they sought “to resolve a division of opinion on the question whether the Due Process Clause requires a trial judge to conduct a preliminary assessment of the reliability of an eyewitness identification made under suggestive circumstances not arranged by the police.” Given that even eyewitness identifications made under the best of circumstances are frequently flawed, it seems only logical to conclude that, of course, preliminary assessment of reliability should occur.

The Court’s decision also highlights the fact that the Constitution precludes defendants from convictions based on unreliable evidence not by refusing to admit that evidence but instead by providing them the means to persuade a jury of the unreliable nature of that evidence.  It is necessary here to return to the fact that juries look at eyewitness testimony as exceedingly compelling, and as a result this sort of evidence must be treated with the utmost care. Moreover, the aforementioned social science and America’s more than two-decade-long experience with DNA exonerations, demonstrate that the due process standards announced in Neil and Manson are simply inadequate to weed out bad IDs before trial and that juries just don’t have the knowledge or skill set to discount them during trial.  Thus, under the current regime upheld in this case, defendants have a very small chance of preventing the jury from hearing an identification or being able to convince a jury of the invalidity of eyewitness testimony once it comes in.

One of the big issues in this case deals with the jury’s right to weigh the credibility of witnesses against one another, a tenant that our legal system is based upon. Would instituting a rule requiring judges to complete pretrial screenings of eyewitness evidence every time an eyewitness identification impinge on the jury’s right to determine the weight and reliability of the testimony themselves? The Supreme Court seems to think so, yet based on empirical social science research it seems unfair to allow unchecked eyewitness testimony into the courts on such a broad scale. The opinion addresses the use of jury instructions to institute a level of fairness into the use of eyewitness identifications, but again the evidence shows that this testimony has an exceptionally powerful impact on juries. A possible remedy for this issue is the use of expert witnesses in explaining to a jury the issues with eyewitness identifications.

Justice Sonia Sotoymayor dissented from the Court’s opinion, and her dissent echoes all of the above issues. Sotomayor summarized these by saying, “this Court has long recognized that eyewitness identifications’ unique confluence of features—their unreliability, susceptibility to suggestion, powerful impact on the jury,and resistance to the ordinary tests of the adversarial process—can undermine the fairness of a trial.”

Unfortunately, Sotomayor’s opinion was not the majority opinion of the Court, and the status quo set forth by preceding cases remains, leaving eyewitness identifications as largely admissible in spite of their tendency to hinder the justice system.

The real question is what does this mean for the reform of identification procedures and law surrounding identifications sought by the Innocence Movement.  Will law enforcement, prosecutors and courts simply point to Perry and say “well, the Supreme Court doesn’t think there is a problem so why should we?”  Only time will tell.

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Witness Misidentification: Costs, Causes, and Cures

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

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

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

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

Don’t read ahead…watch the video first.

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

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

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

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

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Through the Spiraling Nightmare to Freedom

Alejandra de la Fuente — September 08, 2011 @ 5:11 PM — Comments (1)

I loved the music, but the story was even better. The emotions I experienced during William Michael Dillon’s performance at The Moon September 7 ran the gamut from utter despair to complete elation enhanced by Dillon’s wry humor. Even though I am familiar with his story, it never ceases to amaze.

This tale contains just about all of the elements that can contribute to a wrongful conviction. A young man with a drug conviction out for a night of partying is evasive with cops staking out a murder crime scene. It seems the young man is trying to hide the joint in his hand. He hears later that the cops want to question him so he calls them up and they take him in. He has nothing to hide (since he’s innocent) so he willingly answers their questions, follows their orders and volunteers to take a lie detector test.

In return for his cooperation, the 22-year-old is falsely convicted of murder and serves over 27 years before, through his own handwritten petition and the help of the Florida Innocence Project, he is released from prison and eventually exonerated. But if we let the story end here, we fail to grasp Dillon’s message. While he does not dwell on the past, he learned from it to face the future a wiser man. So should we all.

It can happen to any of us. When police and prosecutors, such as those in Brevard County in this instance, manufacture false evidence, intimidate and threaten witnesses into lying on the stand, and basically decide that someone is guilty because it looks that way and they need to close the case – it can happen to any of us. In spite of the fact that witnesses recanted testimony almost immediately and that testimony put Dillon essentially in three places at once, the jury still convicted him. In spite of the fact that a major prosecution witness was engaged in a sexual relationship with one of the detectives, the jury still convicted him. In spite of the fact there was not a shred of physical evidence to tie Dillon to the crime, the jury still convicted him. In spite of the fact two witnesses provided an alibi, the jury still convicted him. And it took over 27 years to right the wrong.

Dillon’s message delivered both through song and story is one we should all take to heart. It can be a dangerous world out there. Take care. And even though Dillon pointed out with glee to all the lawyers present that he’s “one for one” in writing successful petitions, I’ll bet he would add one more piece of advice. If you run into trouble with the law, call an attorney and remain silent.

My advice is to buy Dillon’s CD and don’t miss an opportunity to see him perform. You won’t regret it.

The CD, Black Robes and Lawyers, is available on iTunes, click here.

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National News Round Up

Alejandra de la Fuente — August 03, 2011 @ 9:37 AM — Comments (0)

How DNA evidence can contribute to wrongful convictions. Charing Ball’s article in the Atlanta Post makes a compelling argument against greatly expanding DNA testing on a national basis. Says Ball,

“Many things can corrupt DNA, and as such, criminal investigations should be under closer scrutiny for their reliance on the sole use of this tool….This mad rush to build databases has in some cases impeded the ability of investigators to not only process evidence, but pursue investigations. As a result complaints have risen about mistakes at DNA labs around the country.”

She goes on to cite examples in Virginia, Las Vegas, and possibly San Francisco. It serves to remind us that DNA is a wonderful tool when proper testing and evidence procedures are followed, but it is not the be-all and end-all when in the wrong hands.

Nevada exoneree wins lawsuit raising awareness of lack of wrongful-conviction compensation laws. This Las Vegas Sun item cites Dwayne Jackson’s $1.5 million settlement for the four years he spent behind bars for a wrongful conviction. Author Steve Kanigher notes that

“Nevada remains one of 23 states that doesn’t require government to pay those who are mistakenly incarcerated.” However, some of the 27 states that have passed compensation laws “require compensation only through private compensation bills that must be approved by lawmakers, often a highly politicized process that requires exonerees to mount costly campaigns.”

The surprising news? Guess which state has one of the best laws on the books – Texas – according to the Innocence Project of New York. It provides for an annuity, child support payments, education tuition, and full access to services that help re-entry into society in addition to $80,000 for each year of wrongful incarceration.

And more from Las Vegas. This is a look at five cases of the wrongfully convicted – all in the city of Las Vegas. Las Vegas Sun Reporter Rebecca Clifford-Cruz details cases, including that of Dwayne Jackson mentioned above, from murder to robbery and child molestation that caused five men to spend years behind bars for someone else’s crime. The reasons include the usual suspects – false witness testimony, inadequate defense counsel, mishandling of DNA evidence, incorrect sentencing, insufficient evidence, and discrimination against minorities.

Sorry seems to be the hardest word. Finally getting it right in Massachusetts. The JamaicaPlainPatch tells us that residents of Suffolk County can rest easier. Not only is the man who committed serial rapes in 1991 behind bars, but the innocent man previously convicted of the crimes is free.

“After herculean efforts by prosecutors, police officers, victim advocates, and others, we’ve accomplished what was once impossible,” Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said. “We’ve brought to justice a man who eluded identification and accountability for decades, and in the process we changed the way our cases are investigated, built, and prosecuted.”

Conley has routinely permitted post-conviction DNA testing and helped to change eyewitness evidence procedures that eventually led to the release of Powell and others. He was recognized by the Boston Bar Association for his efforts to “address, correct, and prevent wrongful convictions”. Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project said that Conley’s actions “put Boston at the forefront of the country”.

Kudos to Conley for helping to exonerate Anthony Powell who served 12 years for crimes committed by Jerry Dixon. As Powell watched Dixon admit to the crimes in court, his lawyer told that “Powell remains upset that he has not received an apology from Judge Robert A. Mulligan, who presided over the case and is now the Superior Court’s chief justice for administration and management.” Powell felt the judge was “totally hostile” to him during the trial.

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Prosecutor Refuses Judge’s Request to Simply Talk about Wrongful Conviction

Seth — February 14, 2011 @ 4:45 PM — Comments (1)

Hello all.  We are getting back into the swing of things on the blogging.  Between a vacation and an increased frequency of hearings, blogging has taken a back seat.  We apologize for that.

I wanted to point you to a story from a few weeks back that is sort of emblematic of the backwards thinking of institutional actors after a wrongful conviction.  The Orlando Sentinel reports:

As head of the Florida Innocence Commission and chief judge of the Ninth Judicial Circuit, Belvin Perry took a special interest in the wrongful conviction and jailing of Haitian-born Malenne Joseph.

In fact, Perry called for a round-table discussion in early February with all the key players involved in taking Joseph to trial and getting a guilty verdict on a third-degree felony, a crime she never committed and yet spent three months for in the Orange County Jail last summer.

Chief Judge Perry is the not only the Chief of his Circuit Court but he is the Chair of the Florida Innocence Commission, a group designed to look at the causes of wrongful convictions and design reforms for preventing wrongful convictions in the future.  So Judge Perry would be a natural candidate to convene a discussion about what went wrong in the Malenne Joseph case, given his experience on the Commission and the fact that he runs the darn circuit court in Orlando.

So Lawson Lamar, State Attorney in Orlando, FL, gladly accepted his Chief Judge’s invitation, Right? Wrong:

That meeting will not take place, however, in large part because Orange-Osceola State Attorney Lawson Lamar’s office was not interested in discussing what everyone familiar with the case has acknowledged was a severe injustice and a mistake those in the criminal-justice system should want to avoid in the future.

. . .

Less than three hours after that e-mail went out, Chief Assistant State Attorney Bill Vose politely declined the invitation with an e-mail of his own.

“Thank you for the kind invitation but we have already conducted an extensive review internally and the State Attorney participated and encouraged closer intake scrutiny of eyewitness cases,” Vose wrote. “We will not participate however in any group public discussion and feel that each entity should review their own policies and procedures to assure that justice prevails.”

When asked to discuss this decision further, Vose said that his initial response “said it all.”

So let me get this straight.  Your chief judge asks you to do something so minor and so easy as getting together to discuss a case that your office clearly messed up, causing someone to spend time locked up wrongfully, and you say no?  And your excuse is that you have done your own internal review, which you haven’t made public, and you have fixed all problems with witness misidentification in your office’s handling of cases?

This just doesn’t pass the laugh test.  Prosecutor offices here in Florida all proclaim that they understand the problem of witness misidentification and that they have internal policies to not prosecute cases with bad IDs.  But is this even true?  Where are the policies? And if they have them, are they being followed? How come misidentifications still persist?  How come there is resistance to employing updated best practices for performing witness identification procedures such as lineups and photopaks that are based on thirty years of sound social science?

The reality is that a witness identification, whether correct or not, is powerful evidence in front of a jury.  If a prosecutor has a witness ID, they are going to trial to present that ID to get a conviction.  So there is little incentive for prosecutors to do much of anything to weed out bad IDs because it may cause them to lose convictions that a more just process may prevent.  It is truly a hear no evil, see no evil approach to criminal justice that exemplifies the opposite of justice.

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