Posts Tagged ‘wrongful convictions’

False Confessions: Who is Most Vulnerable?

Taylor Thornton — February 26, 2018 @ 12:00 PM — Comments (0)

It is hard for most people to wrap their mind around why anyone would ever confess to a crime that they didn’t commit. It seems impossible to the average person to imagine themselves ever doing such a thing. Yet, a quarter of those exonerated after being wrongfully convicted of a crime gave some sort of confession. This shocking statistic begs the obvious question: why would someone ever confess when they are innocent? In this series of posts on false confessions, we will look at the circumstances that lead to a false confession and the powerful consequences they can have.

While anyone can find themselves in this situation, there are a number of factors that make individuals more likely to give a false confession. People vary in their ability to withstand the psychological pressures of interrogation. One of these factors is age. Social scientists have found that juveniles are overrepresented when examining the demographics of exonerees that once gave confessions. Juveniles are two to three times more likely to give false confessions than adults. They are often more susceptible to the pressures of coercion involved in police interrogation tactics. It is also likely that juveniles do not often fully understand the serious long-term consequences of giving that false confession. It may not to be clear to them that they will not be returning home to their families or going back to school the following day after giving these confessions.

The harsh psychological tactics that police officers use to yield confessions, isolation, the promises of help and leniency in return for a confession, and the relentless insistence that the accused is lying to them, are simply intended for adult criminals. It is a fact that juveniles’ minds are not fully developed yet. Particularly, the prefrontal cortex, notably responsible for problem-solving and decision making, is not fully developed until their early twenties. Meaning that, juveniles are often impulsive, lacking in reason and decision-making abilities, and most importantly they are motivated by short-term rewards. This makes it quite obvious why juveniles will confess to a crime they did not commit so that they can just go home like the detective makes them believe that they will, rather than weighing the long-term consequences of this short-term release from the pressure and stress of interrogation.

Another population that finds themselves just as vulnerable as juveniles are those with intellectual disabilities. For obvious reasons, people with mental handicaps often lack proper judgement, the ability to reason and make decisions, and the ability to understand the powerful implications of a false confession. They are susceptible to the pressures of interrogations in a similar way to juveniles as they can lack intellectual capabilities in similar areas. Additionally, however, social scientists have concluded that those with intellectual disabilities also have a high need for approval, and therefore often seek to give people what they want. This need is heightened in the presence of an authority figure. Because of their desire to please they are much more likely to submit to the demands of others and give the authority figure what they want.

Finally, they simply lack the same ability to cope with high levels of stress that others possess. Those with intellectual disabilities tend to find even regular levels of stress to be overwhelming and a police interrogation is extremely stressful for anyone. They tend to want to avoid conflict and are much more likely to just comply with the requests of the interrogators, even if that means giving a false confession, so that they can end the situation sooner.

One last population that is highly susceptible to the pressures of police interrogations is the mentally ill. The baseline for a coerced confession in people who are mentally ill is much lower than for other people. They may lack social skills such as assertiveness, the ability of executive functioning, have high anxiety, and lack the ability to separate reality from fantasy. What might not even seem like coercion to others, can serve to coerce a confession from someone who is mentally ill because they tend to be much more susceptible to the slightest amount of pressure. Thus, like the other populations that we discussed, the mentally ill are much more vulnerable to making false confessions and not understanding the consequences of making these confessions.

While these special populations do not necessarily make up the majority of false confessions, it is important to understand how they may be unfairly affected by interrogation tactics used by police. It is often the detectives only goal to yield some sort of confession. However, a false confession is the opposite of justice, it traps the innocent in the justice system and leaves the true guilty party on the streets. It is vital for police to have an understanding of who they are questioning and what kind of deficits the suspect may have that would bar them from responding in a regular way under the pressure of an interrogation.

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After Exoneration: The Value of a Life

Taylor Thornton — February 22, 2018 @ 12:00 PM — Comments (0)

It’s hard to put a price on the time lost behind prison walls. It is impossible to determine the monetary value of strained and broken relationships, birthdays and Christmases spent alone, years of lost wages, mental and physical suffering, or the missed opportunities to raise your own children or grandchildren. When a human life is so deeply damaged by such a grave injustice, it is necessary for the state to repair that damage to the best of their ability.

Only 32 states and the federal government have laws in place that define exactly how much money is awarded for wrongful convictions. Often this comes in the form of set amounts for each year served, but that number can vary greatly from state to state. The amount will also cap at a certain amount in some states and in many cases these cap at much too low a number. In Wisconsin, for example, there is a bill currently in state legislature aimed at fighting the very low cap of $25,000 for their wrongful conviction rewards.

As far as the other 18 states that make up our country, individuals in these states must fight for their own compensations by passing private bills or filing civil lawsuits if the former fails. This can lead to the incredibly unjust result of these exonerated people receiving no compensation at all if they are unable to get a bill passed or succeed in a civil suit. Even for those who do not win, they must still venture into this battle for justice after they have already had to battle for their own freedom. This is simply unjust and adds insult to injury.

In addition to money, they need help when they are released. Money does play a large role, if the compensation is large enough they can secure a place to live and not have to worry about seeking out employment, at least not for a while. But, they are still being thrown back into a new and unfamiliar world to start essentially from scratch. The average time served for a wrongful conviction is 14 years, and a lot can change in that time. While the freedom of being released is undeniably wonderful, for many of those released that is simply the beginning of a new set of struggles and problems for them. It is more than enough of a hardship to try to readjust to life in the real world outside of the horrors endured behind prison walls. But, for many innocent people, they have no time to think about this upon their release because they have to worry about where they are going to live, how to get a job as many of them still remain with criminal records despite proving their innocence, many have to battle to earn back the custody of their children, and unfortunately many have to fight for any sort of compensation for their wrongful convictions, something that should come automatically.

Along with a substantial monetary compensation for the time taken away from the victims of wrongful convictions, the state needs to provide additional services. Mental and physical health services are needed for those leaving prison. Therapy is essential to help deal with the psychological damage of years spent away from family and friends for a crime they did not commit. In addition, prison presents a high risk for the spread of diseases and proper health services are necessary to evaluate the conditions of these people upon their release. Services are also needed to help them find affordable housing and a job that will employ them in spite of their records. The scars of their wrongful convictions often still serve as roadblocks for them to achieve these basic human necessities, despite their exoneration.

These services are needed to help victims to just initially get back on their fight. But, they need to go even more in-depth. These victims will need to be provided legal assistance to help them get their criminal records clear of their charges once they have been proven innocent. These charges will continue to hold them back from jobs, housing, and relationships as long as crimes that they are not guilty of remain on their record. They will also need legal assistance to fight for monetary compensation in many cases, to regain access to their children, or to sue if their constitutional rights were violated in the process of this wrongful conviction.

For those wrongfully convicted of a crime, finally being released from prison is likely to be the best day of their life. But, it is unfortunately not the end of their nightmarish experience.

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A new graph from the National Registry of Exonerations: Exonerations by year of conviction

Alejandra de la Fuente — May 18, 2015 @ 4:36 PM — Comments (1)

The website for the National Registry of Exonerations is a treasure trove of information for those who are interested in wrongful convictions and exonerations. The Registry keeps track of exonerations dating back from 1989, and includes details about the cases. The website also displays their extensive information on U.S. exonerations in charts, graphs, and infographics. Recently, the Registry updated their page to include a line graph that presents the numbers of exonerations per year of conviction. In other words, the graph answers the question: How many people who were convicted in any given year were ultimately exonerated?

This graph gives us a new way to think about exonerations and wrongful convictions. We can see how wrongful conviction rates for certain crimes have decreased over time. For example, as DNA testing becomes more advanced, widespread, and fast-paced, less and less people are being wrongfully convicted for rape and other crimes for which DNA evidence is available. The graph shows this; since the late 80s and early 90s, when pretrial DNA testing became more common, there have been less convictions that have resulted in exonerations, implying that the accuracy of sexual assault and rape convictions has improved.

Further, if we compare the conviction year line graph to the line graph that presents the numbers of exonerations by year, we can see how different types of wrongly accused defendants are exonerated at different rates. Current rates for murder exonerations are relatively high, while rates of wrongful convictions for murder in recent years are low. This does not mean that murder convictions in recent years are more accurate; rather, it means that it takes many years for a murder conviction to get overturned compared to other types of crimes. A man who was falsely convicted for murder may spend nearly 40 years incarcerated before being exonerated (See Ricky Jackson, who was wrongly incarcerated for 39 years).

On the other hand, a person who was falsely convicted for another type of crime may be exonerated within the year, or even within a few days, as seen in the case of Alexandra Mendez. We can see that nearly all of the exonerations for convictions in recent years are for crimes under the category of “other”, which is made up for crimes like drug use or attempted murder. This is not to say that all people wrongfully convicted for drug crimes are quickly exonerated, however. Try filtering the Registry of Exonerations by “Crime: Drug Possession or Sale” to see how the time spent wrongly incarcerated for drug crimes can vary. It is just more likely that a wrongful drug case conviction will be quickly resolved than a murder case will; murder has a victim, and the victim’s family may desire finality and closure, which an overturned conviction can disrupt.

Resources like the National Registry of Exonerations are extremely useful to the mission of the Innocence Project of Florida. By providing the public with these graphs and statistics, the problem of wrongful convictions becomes less hidden. The public can begin to understand what helps speed up the exoneration process (for example, DNA testing), or why an innocent person may have a hard time being exonerated (for example, because murder charges are hard to fight).  The more educated the public becomes about wrongful convictions, the more people we have on our side in our fight against them.

This blog has been inspired by National Registry of Exonerations May Newsletter. Click here to sign up to receive their newsletters.

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News Roundup From Around The Nation 7/11/14

Alejandra de la Fuente — July 11, 2014 @ 6:00 PM — Comments (0)

In this week’s news roundup we are happy to report stories of resilience, redemption, and rebuilding.

  • Resilience: (San Antonio, TX) Sonia Cacy spent just 5 years of her 99 year sentence in prison before she was paroled in 1999. However, the fact that she was released early did not satisfy Cacy. She was determined to be officially exonerated of her crime, which she has always maintained she did not commit. Since the day of her release, she has fought to have justice restored to her life and to be compensated for the years stolen from her. Convicted in 1993 of murdering her uncle at the small house they shared in Fort Stockton, she was given 99 years in prison. However, the case against her was primarily the product of an inaccurate reading of an evidence test and the outdated arson investigation techniques of that time. Now, with the several experts refuting the original test reading and the great improvements in arson science, it has become clear that the case against her is one which is weak.  Her case is currently being heard by Judge Bert Richardson of San Antonio, who will not rule on the case for a few months, attorneys said. Richardson could recommend that Cacy’s conviction be overturned, though the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals would make any final determination on her case
  • Redemption: (Lowell, MA) For the 32 years Victor Rosario has been behind bars, the entirety of which he steadfastly denied setting the 1982 Lowell fire that killed eight people, five of them children. Rosario, 57, was convicted in 1983 after confessing that he and two other men had used Molotov cocktails to set the fire, the deadliest in Lowell’s history. However, changes in how fire investigators determine arson, as well as the fact that Rosario’s confession is now thought to have been coerced, has cast serious doubts about the legitimacy of his conviction. While 32 years in prison had certainly taken a toll on Rosario, he never stopped fighting for his innocence. Therefore, it was an incredible relief when Superior Court Judge Kathe M. Tuttman overturned the murder convictions last Monday, ruling that new evidence cast “real doubt on the justice of the conviction.” The next day Rosario posted his $25,000 bail and was finally able to walk out of prison as a free man. His battle may not be over, as the D.A.’s office plans to retry Rosario, but at this moment in his life; justice has prevailed.
  • Rebuilding: 25 years is an extremely long amount of time in any person’s life. However, those years must feel even longer when they are spent imprisoned for a crime you did not commit. Sadly, that is the reality in Michael Morton’s life. After being wrongly convicted of the murder of his beloved wife, he spent 25 years in prison (separated from his young son) before justice finally prevailed. Today, he is trying to rebuild his life and further the cause of the wrongfully convicted with his new book: “Getting Life”. His book recounts the tragic events in his life and how he dealt with the horrible burden of false imprisonment. The book has just hit shelves and can be found on and many other book retailers.


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The Central Park 5: The Truth Concerning Confessions

Alejandra de la Fuente — June 30, 2014 @ 2:39 PM — Comments (0)

On the night of April 19, 1989 a vicious and horrifying crime was perpetrated in Central Park New York. On that night 28-year-old investment banker Trisha Meili (who has publicly released her identity) was violently assaulted and raped while jogging in the park. She was raped and beaten almost to the point of death. When found, about four hours later at 1:30 am, she was suffering from severe hypothermia and blood loss from multiple lacerations and internal bleeding, and her skull had been fractured so badly that her left eye was removed from the socket. This crime came at a time when crime rates in New York were at an all-time high and race relations were at a low point. The rape of an affluent white woman, in an area that had been reporting a crime spree by minority youths, was enough to set the city afire with outrage. There were calls for immediate justice coming from all levels of the political and social sphere; the NYPD could feel the fire building under their feet. They immediately threw their investigation into full throttle. In a short time they had rounded up a very convincing group of suspects. This group consisted of 5 Black and Hispanic youths who admitted to being in the park that evening engaging in (various forms of) criminal mischief of a far lesser severity. They ranged in age from 14-16. They confessed to the rape and assault of the jogger. By December 1990, all of the 5 young men were convicted of charges related to the rape. They would proceed to spend a combined 40 years in prison.  All convictions were affirmed on appeal.

On December 19, 2002 the five defendants’ convictions were vacated by New York Supreme Court Justice Charles J. Tejada. Another man, a career violent criminal named Matias Reyes, came forward and claimed responsibility for the crime. He claimed that he assaulted the victim on that fateful night, and he did it alone. His DNA was tested against the DNA which was found on the victim’s body. The test results came back with a match, something which had never happened to the Central Park 5 (as they came to be known). They had already been released from incarceration for several years, but the confirmation of their innocence was a long awaited relief. Twelve years later, the City of New York finally agreed to a $40 million settlement and the Central Park Five were finally able to feel a sense of justice which had eluded them for the past 25 years. The question still remained: how could justice become so derailed?

A confession, or admission of guilt, while being interrogated by the police seems like a very straight forward concept. A guilty party (if so persuaded) would admit to a crime which they had committed, and an innocent person would not. Therefore, the common assumption would be, only guilty people admit to being guilty. Sadly, this is not always the case. In roughly 30% of DNA exoneration cases, innocent defendants made incriminating statements, delivered outright confessions, or pled guilty. These are men and women who have been scientifically proven to be innocent of their charges, yet they still confessed to those crimes. This is the issue with confessions; they give the impression of infallibility, while in reality being far from it.

The case of the Central Park Five is the perfect embodiment of this issue. Five teenagers were picked up by the police, their names were released to the press (before they were arraigned), and then they were intensely questioned by the police, which certainly must have been one of the most frightening experiences of their young lives.  They were questioned, prodded, threatened with addition jail time, and fed lies about the investigation (they were told by detectives that they had found their fingerprints on the victims). They were pushed and pushed, until they broke down and admitted to a crime of which they have scientifically been proven to be innocent. There was no physical evidence in the case and there were no eye witnesses. The case rested solely on those confessions. That was enough to rob these five young men of their youth and put them in prison for a combined 40 years.

This is the danger of a conviction based solely on a confession. A confession is not infallible evidence, and yet is continued to be treated as such. This is quite troublesome, due to there being an incredible amount of factors which could contaminate a confession, rendering it false. Whether it be incompetence/malice on the part interrogators, pressure/fear on the part of the suspect, or a combination of the both, it is far too easy for a miscarriage of justice to occur. Yet, situations similar to the Central Park Five are far from rare. There are currently countless people incarcerated due to convictions based solely on confessions. Surely, many of these people may actually be guilty of their crimes. However, as the Central Park Five have shown, it is incredibly possible that a large number of those prisoners may very well be innocent. They could simply be victims of being pushed into saying the wrong thing, at the wrong time.

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Compensation for the Wrongfully Convicted at Home and Around the Nation

Alejandra de la Fuente — March 26, 2014 @ 1:53 PM — Comments (0)

Those who have been wrongfully convicted not only faced with time behind bars. They also faced financial hardships and years stripped from their lives; they lost loved ones – people they will never get back. They deserve compensation for their losses, but not all states have made this happen.

Last week, Wyoming lawmakers took a look at two bills that are aimed at helping those who have been wrongfully convicted, and one of which is a way to receive compensation. This bill will allow wrongfully convicted men and women to receive $100 for everyday they were imprisoned, with a limit of $500,000. Read more.

In a Wisconsin case, Robert Stinson spent over twenty years incarcerated for a crime he did not commit. He asked for $129,000 in compensation, but only received $25,000. Since then, the Wisconsin Senate and Assembly have been working to pass a bill to give him the compensation he deserves. In November, the Senate passed a bill for $136,000 in compensation, and last Tuesday, the Assembly answered with a $90,000 version of the bill. Wisconsin legislature should not only be working right now to compensate Robert Stinson, but should be working to pass legislature for all persons who have and will be wrongfully imprisoned. Read more. 

At the end of February, Alaska lawmakers introduced a bill that both prevents wrongful convictions, and aims at compensating those who have been exonerated from wrongful convictions. With this bill, the exonerated would receive $50,000 a year for every year they were incarcerated, up to $2 million. Read More.

In Mississippi, Frank Sanders Tipton was compensated about $41,000 for the 300 days he spent in prison, but was given nothing for the two years he spent under house arrest. Tipton sued the Jackson County Circuit Court for the two years he spent under house arrest because he believes that house arrest is simply another form of incarceration. However, the Mississippi Supreme Court denied Tipton’s appeal. Read more.

In New York, lawmakers are working on legislature to ensure that all who have been wrongfully convicted have a way to receive compensation, something that we have yet to do in Florida. Florida law allows $50,000 a year in compensation, up to $2 million for those who have been wrongfully imprisoned and then exonerated, and additional money for any fees they the exoneree paid and has proof of during trial and conviction. However, there is a limitation in this statute – if the exoneree has a felony conviction prior to or picks one up during his wrongful imprisonment, he is disqualified to receive any compensation from the State. Read more about that here. In contrast, New York  does not offer any money to any exoneree who has pleaded guilty to a crime, even after they have been proven innocent.

It has become apparent that across the country, and here at home in Florida, that all who have been wrongfully convicted should receive compensation for the time spent in prison, and many lawmakers are now beginning to realize this fact. Currently, Florida is working on a new piece of legislature to amend the current compensation statute.

As always, there are steps being made in the right direction, but we are still a long way from where we should be, as only 29 states offer compensation at all. Only one third of exonerees have been compensated in the United States, and most of those have not received any amount close to what was fair for their time spent in prison. However, this issue has proven to be one that we can have faith in, as in 2009, Texas passed a bill to offer $80,000 per year for wrongful imprisonment, which is $30,000 per year more than Florida.

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We Have a Dream

Alejandra de la Fuente — January 20, 2014 @ 8:22 AM — Comments (0)

Dr. Martin Luther King is well known for his ‘I have a dream’ speech that contained memorable lines almost any American can quote. But there were thousands of other words spoken by Dr. King that should not be forgotten. We take one day a year to remember this man who sacrificed so much for so many people. He had a dream and he instilled in us all his hope that we too would have one.

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy”. For wrongfully convicted inmates, the days of challenge and controversy most of the time define who they are. However, while Dr. King was an advocate for equal rights, it seems Mr. King could have also looking out for those who have been wrongfully convicted. Mr. King, over 50 years ago, had a dream and all who work to correct the injustices of wrongful conviction also have a dream.

We dream that the wrongfully imprisoned will be reunited with their families, friends, and lives that they were forced to leave behind for a variety of mishaps. We dream that one day innocent men will not find themselves behind bars and one day the work of innocence projects around the world will be unnecessary. And last but not lease, we dream that the gift of freedom will be granted to all who have been victimized by wrongful conviction and wrongful convictions will be a thing of the past.


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News Roundup From Around the Nation

Alejandra de la Fuente — September 18, 2013 @ 10:00 AM — Comments (0)

Legislative action passed in California last week will improve the process by which wrongfully convicted Californians will receive compensation for their time served. Senate Bill 618 will streamline the process allowing those who are exonerated to receive their funds quicker and with less hassle. The Bill’s author, Senator Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, said “[t]his effort helps prevent the state’s faulty administrative process from perpetrating yet another wrong on these innocent individuals who deserve and need our help to get back on their feet and on with their lives.” For more information visit the California Senators news page here.

Recently, the wrongfully convicted man Carl Chatman was released from prison after serving nine years for a rape he did not commit. Many citizens have expressed outrage at the lack of response from the justice system in regards to Chatman’s accuser. The woman who accused Chatman of raping her had a previous experience in which she accused another man of the same crime. Unfortunately, Mr. Chatman’s situation is not a unique one. Due to the statute of limitations regarding perjury in Illinois, Chatman’s accuser cannot be punished. For more information about Carl Chatman visit the Chicago Sun-Times.

Barri White, a wrongfully convicted man, served six years in high-security jail for the murder of his girlfriend in 2002. In 2005, the BBC investigated his case and found the forensic evidence used to convict him was false and his case had been one of false accusations and demonization. Mr. White stated “I am still fighting, I have had enough of fighting, I deserve a life back. Getting compensation and an apology from the police, that would be my justice. It was six years of my life, my whole 20s, pretty much. They’re supposed to be the best years of your life but I was rotting in jail. Nothing can make up for that. No amount of money is going to bring my six years back.” The BBC program ‘Life after life: Barri and Keith’s story’ aired Monday Sept. 16th in the UK and will be available later online. Information can be found at the BBC.

Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Canino

Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Canino

Ronald Cotton was mistakenly identified and wrongfully convicted of raping Jennifer Thompson-Canino in 1984. Cotton was exonerated in June 1995 after DNA testing proved he was not the rapist. In an unusual turn of events, he and Jennifer have become friends and often appear together talking about wrongful convictions and incarceration. The two have written a book, “Picking Cotton“, and are to the keynote speakers at the centerpiece of Miami University (of Ohio) Regional Campus’ upcoming Criminal Justice Week. More information about the talks can be found at the Journal News.

They are also scheduled to be in Jacksonville at both of the Florida State College campuses in March 2014.

In Louisiana recently an exonerated man who was cleared of rape charges finds himself in court again. Darrin Hill, a 47 year old man who suffers from schizoaffective disorder, had been in prison for more than ten years for a rape he did not commit. His accuser pointed him out in a lineup and he was convicted quickly. Over the past 13 years Hill had been in and out of mental hospitals and jails. In 2010, a sexual assault kit that was used by doctors to examine Hill’s accuser was found by staff members of the federal National Institute of Justice-funded Orleans Parish Post-conviction DNA Testing Project. DNA testing revealed that Hill’s DNA was not present but rather the testing revealed the DNA of another man. Hill was exonerated with the help of Innocence Project New Orleans and charges were dropped. Now Hill has to face his accuser again as she refutes her earlier claim that he was her rapist. More information can be found at The Advocate.

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Exoneree Compensation Lawsuit Sandbagged When City Declares Bankruptcy

Alejandra de la Fuente — August 07, 2013 @ 10:49 AM — Comments (0)

After spending nearly a decade behind bars for a crime he did not commit, Dwanye Provience sued Detroit in 2010 in a lawsuit that includes a cop accused of withholding evidence and would likely have made Provience a millionaire. But on July 18, just as his lawsuit was gaining momentum, the city filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection, effectively freezing all lawsuit cases against it and leaving Provience facing the prospect of waiting years for an uncertain payday, or worse, collecting pennies on the dollar in bankruptcy court.

Provience and his lawyer have been working on this case for three years now. The bankruptcy filing may add one more. “It seemed like a slap in the face,” Provience says, “because when I was released, there wasn’t even an apology from the City of Detroit or the police department….”

Provience’s case serves to highlight the importance of having a state compensation law for the wrongfully convicted on the books. Michigan is one of the twenty-one states that still does not have any sort of compensation law. States are urged to pay the wrongfully convicted a fixed amount or range for each year spent in prison and it is worth noting that then-President George W. Bush supported a congressional recommendation that paid $50,000 for each year a wrongfully convicted federal prisoner spends behind bars.

A judgement or settlement with Detroit would help Provience provide for his three children and maybe allow him to open a gym one day, a personal goal of his. It is possible U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes could lift the automatic stay that halted all pending lawsuits against the city. And while Provience’s future is uncertain, he is grateful to finally be back on the outside, living the life he chooses for himself.

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New Ruling Strips Fifth Amendment Rights

Alejandra de la Fuente — June 26, 2013 @ 10:59 AM — Comments (1)

Last week the U.S. Supreme Court held that you remain silent at your own peril in a case called Salinas v. Texas. The Court’s move to cut off the right to remain silent is wrong and also dangerous – it encourages the kind of high-pressure questioning that can elicit false confessions.

The details from the case are nuanced and complex: two brothers were shot at home in Houston. There were no witnesses – only shotgun shells left at the scene. Genovevo Salinas had been at a party at that house the night before the shooting, and police invited him down to the station, where they talked for an hour. They did not arrest him or read him his Miranda rights. Salinas agreed to give the police his shotgun for testing. Then the cops asked whether the gun would match the shells from the scene of the murder. According to the police, Salinas stopped talking, shuffled his feet, bit his lip, and started to tighten up.

At trial, Salinas did not testify, but prosecutors described his allegedly uncomfortable reaction to the question about his shotgun. Salinas argued this violated his Fifth Amendment rights: he had remained silent, and the U.S. Supreme Court had previously made clear that prosecutors can’t bring up a defendant’s refusal to answer the State’s questions.

Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, posited that Salinas was “free to leave” and did not assert his right to remain silent. He was silent; apparently, though, that was not enough.  Without a lawyer and without being told his rights, he evidently should have affirmatively “invoked” his right to not answer questions. Now people have to somehow invoke the right to remain silent even when they’re not formal suspects and they haven’t heard the Miranda warnings.

The Court’s ruling in Salinas is all the more troubling because during such informal, undocumented, and unregulated questioning, there are special dangers that police may, intentionally or not, elicit false confession from innocent suspects. Of the people exonerated by DNA testing, approximately 25% falsely confessed, and many supposedly admitted their guilt even before formal interrogation. This new ruling simply opens another avenue for police to pressure suspects into confession, regardless of innocence. The likely result of the Court’s embrace of shoddy interrogation tactics: more wrongful convictions.

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