Posts Tagged ‘wrongful conviction’


#GuiltyPleaProblem: Why Do Innocent People Plead Guilty?

Alejandra de la Fuente — January 09, 2017 @ 4:08 PM — Comments (0)

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26-year-old Jerry Frank Townsend suffers from a mental disability. Despite having the mental capacity of an eight-year-old, Jerry pled guilty to the rape of a pregnant woman in Miami in 1979. Police began to take Jerry to different crime scenes around the state, resulting in six different confessions for various murders in South Florida throughout the seventies. This resulted in seven concurrent life sentences, guaranteeing Jerry would spend the rest of his life in prison.

Jerry was in prison for nearly 22 years before DNA evidence cleared him of two murders in Broward County and eventually exonerated him of all the crimes. He was released at the age of forty-nine on June 15th, 2001. Now we know that his confessions were the result of his intellectual disability which encouraged him to give the police the answers they wanted to hear, a common adaptive practice for someone with his mental capacities.

Innocent people are pleading guilty to crimes they did not at an alarming rate. Nearly 10% of the nation’s 347 DNA exonerations are innocent people who entered guilty pleas and didn’t go to trial. This is why we are teaming up with the Innocence Project in New York and Actual Innocence to bring awareness to the issue with the launch of their new site Guilty Plea Problem on January 23rd.

Jerry Frank Townsend is not an outlier. Sometimes, it can feel like a guilty plea is the only thing standing between you and the death penalty. Ordinary people are faced with an extraordinary choice every day: confess to a crime you did not commit or receive a harsher sentence in court. Through this campaign, we hope to address the growing issue of a criminal justice system that puts pressure on people to plead guilty.

To help spread the message, be sure to check out GuiltyPleaProblem.Org and sign up for their updates. We will also be posting more information and facts about the reality of guilty pleas on our Facebook and Twitter.

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Today in Wrongful Conviction History: December 14th

Alejandra de la Fuente — December 14, 2016 @ 11:11 AM — Comments (0)

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Today is the exoneration anniversary of Philip Bivens, Larry Ruffin, and Bobby Ray Dixon.

In 1979, all three men were wrongfully convicted of the rape and murder of a woman in Forrest County, Mississippi. All three gave confessions to the police under the threat of the death penalty. Despite the inconsistencies in their confessions with each other and with the evidence in the case, they were sentenced to life in prison.

In 2010, the Innocence Project New Orleans and co-counsel Rob McDuff obtained DNA testing that effectively excluded all three of the men convicted and instead pointed towards a different man altogether.

Sadly, Ruffin died in prison in 2002 and Dixon passed away from lung cancer in November of 2010. Neither got to witness their official exoneration on December 14th, 2010 when a Forrest Count Grand Jury declined to indict the three men.

In January of 2013, a federal wrongful conviction lawsuit was filed against the Forrest County law enforcement officials for coercing the three men’s confessions. Although Bivens passed away in 2014, the state agreed to pay $500,000 to the estate of Ruffin and $375,000 each to the estates of Bivens and Dixon in 2015. Earlier this year, Forrest County has settled the federal lawsuit for a total of $16.5 million.

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New Podcast on Wrongful Conviction

Kate Mathis — July 19, 2016 @ 1:00 PM — Comments (0)

More good news for Serial fans: there is another podcast coming out that will focus on wrongful conviction. The original series, called Wrongful Conviction with Jason Flom, will be available on reVolver Podcasts and will detail the individual stories of people who have been wrongfully convicted. The episodes will be drawn from actual case files of the Innocence Project, and will feature exclusive details about exonerees’ experiences throughout their wrongful convictions. Research and data for each episode will also be provided by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, a nonpartisan law and policy institute revered for their research and advocacy regarding mass incarceration.

Flom is an American music industry executive, CEO of Lava Records, and a Founding Board Member of the Innocence Project. To celebrate the release of the original series, the podcast host has pledged to donate up to $1 million to the Innocence Project, donating $1 for every consumer download from September through December. In discussing the podcast, Flom called for reforms to the criminal justice system and hopes that people will be inspired to join him in the innocence movement.

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Davontae Sanford Exonerated After Eight Years in Prison

Kate Mathis — June 17, 2016 @ 1:00 PM — Comments (0)

Davontae Sanford, who went to prison when he was only 15 years old, finally walked out of a prison a free man on Thursday, June 9. Now 23, Sanford was convicted for the 2007 killing of four people at a drug house in Detroit in a case that was riddled with the makings of a wrongful conviction. The teenager, who lived in the neighborhood, was standing near the crime scene in his pajamas following the fatal shooting, where witnesses told police that his voice resembled one of the shooter’s.

After several hours of questioning over the course of two days, Sanford, who did not completely understand what was going on and was told that he could go home if he admitted to committing the crime, confessed to police and they charged him. Sanford later claimed that he tried recanting his confession. Despite the teen telling police that he used a gun for which no shell casings matching it were found at the crime scene and a murder weapon never having been located, gunshot residue on his clothing and a tracking dog that led authorities to his home also helped them charge Sanford with the murders.

In the middle of his trial, Sanford concluded that his public defender, Robert Slameka, was not going to defend him, so he pleaded guilty. Slameka has received criticism for his failure to challenge his client’s court confession, and his law license is also currently under review due to numerous accusations of misconduct. Despite being developmentally impaired and blind in one eye, a judge at a bench trial convicted the then 15-year-old to 37 to 90 years in prison.

Two weeks later, a hit man confessed to the crime and led police to a gun for which ballistic tests confirmed that it was the weapon used to kill the four victims. The assassin, Vincent Smothers, also told police that Sanford had nothing to do with the crime. This information, however, was never disclosed to Sanford’s defense team, who had difficulty obtaining the information. Despite Smothers’ confession, Sanford would remain in prison for a total of eight years before his exoneration.

When the Michigan Innocence Clinic and the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth accepted Sanford as their client in 2014, they urged Michigan State Police to reinvestigate the case. That reinvestigation brought into the spotlight former Flint police chief James Tolbert’s role in Sanford’s conviction. Tolbert had originally stated that Sanford drew the picture of the crime scene, which was a critical piece of evidence used to convict him. Upon reinvestigation into the case, however, the former police chief admitted that he himself drew the diagram of the crime scene. A warrant is currently under review, and Tolbert may face criminal charges for his part in Sanford’s wrongful conviction.

Following Sanford’s exoneration, Kym Worthy, the top prosecutor in the case, defended her office’s handling of the case. She claimed that Tolbert’s contradicting statements, rather than Smothers’ confession, were the reason they dropped the charges against Sanford. Worthy stated that Sanford, who was determined competent to stand trial by a licensed medical professional, had a number of opportunities to speak with his lawyers and family, and that Smothers could have testified for the defense during the appeals process. She went on to say that her office thoroughly followed up on allegations, that they had good reason to charge Sanford at the time, and that she does not know how she would have prosecuted the case differently.

After his release from prison, Sanford’s first meal as a free man was Chinese food. He wants to put it all behind him and move forward, and hopes to attend college, learn how to drive and get his driver’s license, and share his experience with at-risk youth and juvenile delinquents. Unsurprisingly, his family is happy to have him home, including his sister, who shared her excitement on social media. Sanford’s defense attorneys also plan to file a federal civil rights lawsuit against the officials responsible for his conviction in the hopes of obtaining compensation for the eight years Sanford spent wrongfully incarcerated.

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Study on Life After Exoneration to be Performed in Scotland

Kate Mathis — June 14, 2016 @ 4:00 PM — Comments (0)

A new study on the effects of wrongful conviction will be conducted in Glasgow, Scotland by criminologists from the University of Oxford. Exonerees will be interviewed for the study, which focuses on their lives after release and what more can be done to support them. The project is funded by the Miscarriages of Justice Organisation charity, which fights for more support for those who have been freed from their wrongful convictions. Laura Tilt will be the lead researcher, writing her findings up as a thesis to be included as part of her Doctorate in Criminology.

Tilt stated that the study is one of the first of its kind in the United Kingdom, as past research has focused on how wrongful convictions occur and how they are overturned. She said that outside the United States, little is known about the post-exoneration experience and that obtaining compensation is difficult in the UK due to legislation restrictions. Tilt went on to say that studying the life experiences of exonerees could determine what post-release support for them is or should be available in order to help fix some of the damages caused by their wrongful convictions, because just overturning a conviction does not suffice.

Paul Mclaughlin, the project’s co-manager, stated that there is support for the study because observing the post-exoneration experiences of the wrongfully convicted will determine how they cope with those experiences and what support is available to them to help them deal with the practical and emotional impact of their exonerations. He went on to say that the study is extremely important because the evidence needed to determine the true impact of wrongful convictions will be revealed, which will serve as a tool to assist all those fighting for justice and the rights of the innocent and wrongfully convicted.

One supporter of the study, who will also be interviewed, is James Boyle. In 2005, the former teacher was sentenced to 12 years in prison for committing historical sexual offenses against three children. After serving five years, he was cleared after a second trial ended in a not proven verdict, but has been unable to return to work. Boyle stated that in regards to those released from prison, legal representation should be made available to them so that they can defend themselves and challenge institutions, just as legal representation is available to victims. He stressed the importance of this, stating that legal services should be available to those in his position for as long as they are needed because unless the accused is extremely wealthy, they are at an immediate disadvantage. Citing his experiences of being called a pedophile and doctors telling him that he has chronic stomach and bowel problems due to stress and strain, Boyle went on to say that redress, restorative justice, and whatever assistance it takes is needed to help exonerees cope with the psychological and physical impacts and health damage of being wrongfully incarcerated.

Mclaughlin stated that for more information about the study, potential interviewees are encouraged to contact the organization, which is looking for the contribution of exonerees, their friends and family, and professionals who have worked with exonerees. Tilt will conduct the interviews from Monday, July 11 to Friday, July 22.

Studies like this are crucial to the wrongful conviction community, as research has focused mainly on the causes of wrongful conviction not just in the UK, but also in the US. Aware of the importance of the transition back into life outside of prison following exoneration, IPF was the first innocence organization to employ a full-time social worker on its staff and is one of the few innocence organizations to have a social services reentry program. The program, which has been in place since 2006, helps exonerees from Florida and other states by providing services such as medical assistance, financial assistance, and job training and assistance.

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Floyd Bledsoe Files Federal Lawsuit Over His Wrongful Conviction

Kate Mathis — June 10, 2016 @ 4:00 PM — Comments (0)

Floyd Bledsoe, a well-known Kansas exoneree who recently won his freedom, filed a federal lawsuit on Tuesday, May 10. He was exonerated in December after spending 15 years in prison for a 1999 rape and murder that he did not commit. Despite his repeated denials of committing the crime and several pieces of evidence implicating his brother as the perpetrator, Bledsoe was sentenced to life in prison.

Tom, Bledsoe’s brother, confessed to the crime several times to multiple people. According to the lawsuit, he drove to the Jefferson County Law Enforcement Center two days after Arfmann’s disappearance and made two calls to his Sunday school teacher and one to his parents confessing to the killing from the center’s parking lot. That night, Tom met with his lawyer and sheriff’s deputies and confessed to the crime, telling them that he knew where the victim’s body was buried. Investigators were then led to his parents’ property, where her body was found. Tom later turned over a handgun that he had recently purchased and used to kill Arfmann.

Bledsoe was finally exonerated after DNA evidence was tested, revealing that his brother was involved in the crime. Following the release of those results, Tom killed himself and left several suicide notes confessing to the crimes against Arfmann. In one, he wrote that no one would listen when he tried telling the truth, and that he was told to keep his mouth shut, which tore him up. According to Bledsoe’s attorney, Russell Ainsworth, Tom’s lawyer helped him form the story implicating his brother that he later told to investigators.

The federal lawsuit alleges that investigators, prosecutors, and Tom’s attorney framed Bledsoe, and that prosecutors pursued the case despite his brother’s numerous confessions. According to Ainsworth, none of those confessions or an explanation for why Tom was released from custody and why Bledsoe was instead arrested for the crime was included in the 37-page case report. There are more than a dozen defendants in the lawsuit, including the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and the prosecutor that pursued the case.

According to Ainsworth, the lawsuit also aims to determine why investigators wanted to pin the crime on the 23-year-old father of two young sons and to hold them accountable. The suit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, as Kansas currently has no law regarding financial compensation for the wrongfully convicted.

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Chinese Man Sues for Wrongful Conviction Compensation

Kate Mathis — April 08, 2016 @ 4:00 PM — Comments (0)

A Chinese man who spent 23 years in prison for a murder he did not commit is now seeking compensation for his wrongful conviction. Chen Man was arrested on December 25, 1992 following the discovery of his landlord who was found dead two days prior in a burned down house. Determined to be an apparent homicide, Man, who was working as a painter and decorator at the time in Haikou on the southern island of Hainan, was given the death sentence. That sentence was suspended in 1994 by a Haikou court for two years, which usually translates to life in prison.

Man and his family have always maintained his innocence. In February of last year, his lawyer raised concerns during a hearing about the credibility of Man’s confession, claiming that he was tortured into making one. In addition to the questionability about the fairness of his trial, his lawyer cited 18 contradictions in his testimony, which he said were due to Man being strangled and beaten with sticks and steel rods.

Following the hearing, the Supreme People’s Court, China’s highest court, ordered Man’s case to be reopened and a retrial took place. During the retrial, both prosecutors and the defense requested for Man to be released. Upon the announcement of his release, Fu Qin, Hainan’s top judge, apologetically bowed to Man on behalf of the court that issued the death sentence.

Man is now suing the Chinese government and seeking compensation from the Hainan Higher People’s Court in the form of 9,660,000 Yuan, which in the United States translates to $1,491,987.

Man’s case is the most recent among a series of overturned wrongful convictions in China, following the government’s emphasis on its commitment to the law and preventing wrongful convictions. In the case of Huugjilt, another high-profile wrongful conviction case, 26 police officer, judges, and prosecutors were given demerits over the teenager who was executed in 1996 for the rape and murder of a Hohhot woman. Huugjilt’s conviction was overturned after the real perpetrator was caught nine years later and confessed to the crime. The government’s focus on its commitment and the recent overturned wrongful convictions may relate to the practices of the justice system in China—a country where more than 99% of criminal defendants are found guilty.

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Man Finds Love Amidst Wrongful Conviction

Kate Mathis — April 08, 2016 @ 10:00 AM — Comments (0)

Despite a few difficulties, thanks to some unusual circumstances, one Johannesburg man has been lucky enough to experience somewhat of a positive outcome due to his wrongful conviction. Boswell Mhlongo was released last year with help from the Wits Justice Project after serving 13 years in two maximum-security prisons for murdering a police officer—a crime that he did not commit.

While he was serving time, Mhlongo completed his matric, which is comparable to honor-level courses in the United States. Matric is the highest level of graduation in South Africa and is required in order to attend a university in the country. He also took several computer science courses, as well as creating a profile on an online dating website. That dating site is where he met the love of his life, Mavis.

Mavis, learned that Mhlongo was incarcerated when he tried to explain where he was after several days of her talking with him. Although he was not the first prisoner she had met through online dating, her instincts encouraged Mavis to trust him and she agreed to meet with Mhlongo. Not knowing anything about prison and hoping to have a place to sit down and talk, she struggled to get in because of what she was wearing. Their first meeting finally took place, however, and the rest is history.

Following Mhlongo’s release, by the end of 2015 the couple was married. They have continued to face setbacks, however. They still do not live together because they have been unable to find jobs in the same province, as it is difficult for Mhlongo to find one. He has to explain why there is a 13-year gap in his career, to which interviewers then get scared and fear for their lives when they hear the word “murder.” Now 37-years-old, Mhlongo was eventually able to find work training mechanics in the northwest.

Although he is finally free, Mhlongo says he is still angry with not only the system that wrongfully imprisoned him, but also with some of the relatives who abandoned him. He stated that his wrongful conviction destroyed him and that despite knowing what kind of person he is, he does not know why his family members could not trust him that he was innocent.

Mhlongo is considering taking legal action, even though no amount of financial compensation will ever be enough to replace the time he lost during his wrongful incarceration.

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Women and Wrongful Conviction

Kate Mathis — April 04, 2016 @ 1:00 PM — Comments (0)

March was designated as Women’s History Month, and the New York-based Innocence Project recently released a video as part of their participation in the event. The brief clip features Maddy deLone, executive director for the project, discussing statistics about women and wrongful conviction.

She first began by giving a shout-out to women who have been exonerated, and the innocent women in prison who still need to be freed. The video features some examples of exonerated women, including Mariah Shepherd, who was exonerated of murder after 25 years, Joann Custard, who was exonerated of second-degree murder after 19 years, and Gloria Goodwin-Killian, who was exonerated of murder after serving 17 years. The clip also features a couple examples of women who have not yet been exonerated of their crimes, including Tyra Patterson, who maintains her innocence while serving 19 years and Belynda Goff, who maintains her innocence after 20 years in prison.

In discussing the statistics, which are taken from the National Registry of Exonerations, deLone begins by saying that historically, over the last 25 years, there has been an increase in the number of women who have been able to prove their innocence. In fact, 159 women in the United States have been exonerated since 1989. The executive director went on to discuss how DNA evidence was the first tool used during the early days of the innocence movement, and that post-conviction DNA has helped exonerate 337 people around the U.S. She also stated that this kind of evidence, however, was often not available to women.

The statistics related to the absence of crimes is also discussed, and that a higher percentage of women were found innocent when prosecutors realized that no crime was committed at all. In 63% of female exoneration cases, women were convicted of crimes that never occurred. deLone gave examples of these types of cases, including accidental deaths, suicide, and accidental deaths of children. In somewhat similar types of occurrences, 50% of female exonerees were convicted of physically harming or killing a family member, loved one, or child in their care, as can be seen in the many examples of “shaken baby syndrome” cases.

The video finishes with deLone discussing bad forensic science, in which 37% of exonerated women were cleared because convictions use false or misleading forensic evidence. She declared that in order to prevent wrongful convictions from happening in the first place, we have to work hard to make forensic science more reliable and more scientific.

To watch the video, click here.

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New TV Drama about Wrongful Conviction

Kate Mathis — February 17, 2016 @ 4:00 PM — Comments (0)

Thanks to various media outlets and programs such as the podcast Serial and Netflix’s Making a Murderer, wrongful convictions have gained increasing notoriety over the past couple years. Going along with the public’s seemingly newfound obsession with the topic, the Big-4 network ABC intends to pilot a new show about wrongful conviction.

The show, titled Conviction, will feature Hayley Atwell, who stars as the lead role in ABC’s Agent Carter.   The company recently added Emily Kinney to the cast. Kinney is best known for her role in AMC’s insanely popular show The Walking Dead.

Conviction is about Atwell’s character, Carter Morrison, who is blackmailed into taking a job as the head of a newly formed Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) in Los Angeles. Morrison, the daughter of a former president, along with her team of lawyers, investigators, and forensic experts, examines cases containing sufficient evidence that suggests the wrong person was convicted of a crime. Kinney will play Tess Thompson, a paralegal that joins the team. She has a strong passion for wrongful convictions, reasons for which are unknown. Thompson previously worked at the Innocence Project, but joined the CIU because she felt she could make more of an impact working on cases from inside the criminal justice system.

This show, if picked up, will hopefully bring to light some of the great work that innocence projects across the nation have been doing for decades.

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