Category: DNA testing

Virginia executioner becomes death penalty opponent

By Alan Bean

This beautifully crafted story about an executioner turned death penalty abolitionist has the pacing of a crime novel.  Jerry Givens has experienced every aspect of the criminal justice system, including time behind bars.  If anyone has taken the full measure of the American gulag, he’s the guy.  The bit where Givens is asked if he would have executed Jesus if the state gave him the death penalty literally took my breath away. Highly recommended.

Ex-Virginia executioner becomes opponent of death penalty

By Justin Juvenal

Jerry Givens executed 62 people.

His routine and conviction never wavered. He’d shave the person’s head, lay his hand on the bald pate and ask for God’s forgiveness for the condemned. Then, he would strap the person into Virginia’s electric chair.

Givens was the state’s chief executioner for 17 years — at a time when the commonwealth put more people to death than any state besides Texas.

“If you knew going out there that raping and killing someone had the consequence of the death penalty, then why are you going to do it?” Givens asked. “I considered it suicide.” (more…)

DC exoneration raises painful questions

Sentae Tribble

By Alan Bean

Santae Tribble spent 28 years in prison for killing a Washington DC cab driver.   Prosecutors knew they had the right man because FBI forensic experts testified that a hair found in the stocking cap used by the killer matched Tribble’s hair sample “in all microscopic characteristics.”

According to the Washington Post, “In closing arguments, federal prosecutor David Stanley went further, saying ‘There is one chance, perhaps for all we know, in 10 million that it could [be] someone else’s hair.'”

That was long before the feds started running DNA tests in 1996.  When Tribble’s hair was finally tested he was ruled out as the killer.  By that time, he had already served the entirety of his sentence. (more…)

Junk science in the courtroom

By Alan Bean

A feature length investigative piece in the Washington Post reports that FBI forensic experts regularly present overblown and inaccurate testimony at trial.  The problem is especially acute, the article suggests in the case of hair examination testimony.  When DOJ studies uncovered flawed forensic testimony, the article claims, the information was turned over to prosecutors and was often kept from defendants and their attorneys.

Here are some highlights from the five-page article: (more…)

Michael Morton tells his story

by Melanie Wilmoth Navarro

Michael Morton is a free man.

In a recent 60 Minutes segment, you see footage of Morton being released from prison and stepping out into the warm Texas sunshine for the first time in 25 years.  “The sun felt so good on my face, on my skin,” Morton recalls, “I felt like I was just drinking in the sunshine.”

In 1987, Morton was convicted of brutally murdering his wife, Christine.  He was sentenced to life in prison.

But he was innocent.

Morton’s case gained national media attention last year when he was exonerated based on DNA evidence — a bandana found near the scene of the crime had traces of Christine’s blood and the DNA of another man.  That same man’s DNA matched that found at the crime scene of another murder that happened in 1988 near where Christine was killed.  Morton was in prison when the second murder occurred.

An investigation by the Innocence Project revealed prosecutorial misconduct in Morton’s case.  Key pieces of evidence were withheld by the prosecution — pieces of evidence that would have cleared Morton’s name. The District Attorney at the time of Morton’s trial, Ken Anderson, is now under investigation.

“I don’t have a lotta things really driving me,” Morton says to the 60 Minutes reporter, “But one of the things is, I don’t want this to happen to anybody else. Revenge isn’t the issue here. Revenge, I know, doesn’t work. But accountability works. It’s what balances out. It’s the equilibrium.”

Check out the full 60 Minutes report here.

“Why do innocent people confess?”

by Melanie Wilmoth Navarro

For most people, it is difficult to imagine a situation in which you would ever admit to a crime you did not commit. However, psychological research suggests that innocent people do confess. In fact, according to the Innocence Project, in “25% of DNA exoneration cases, innocent defendants made incriminating statements, delivered outright confessions, or pled guilty.”

Anything from abuse or threats from law enforcement to ignorance of the law can make individuals more likely to make a false confession. This video from the Innocence Project gives a brief overview of the issue:

 

A recent New York Times article by David Shipler examines the role of police interrogation in false confessions. To get a confession, Shipler states, “officers are taught to use all the tricks and lies that courts permit.” Although juveniles, people with mental illnesses or disabilities, and people under the influence of drugs or alcohol are more likely to make false confessions, the average adult can be manipulated into a false confession as well:

In experiments and in interrogation rooms, adults who are told convincing fictions have become susceptible to memories of things that never happened. Rejecting their own recollections through what psychologists call “memory distrust syndrome,” they are tricked by phony evidence into accepting their own fabrications of guilt — an “internalized false confession.” (more…)

Innocent man finally exonerated

Richard Miles served 14 years in prison for the murder of one man and the attempted murder of another.

Miles’ guilt rested on the testimony of one eyewitness who claimed that he saw Miles shoot two men in a Texaco parking lot. Similar to the Curtis Flowers case, detectives pinpointed Miles and decided that he was guilty within a few hours of the shootings. Miles had an alibi and several individuals who corroborated his story, but that was irrelevant. 

Despite little evidence, Miles was found guilty and sentenced to 60 years in prison.

As of yesterday, however, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that Richard Miles is officially exonerated.

Unlike most of the exonerations thus far, there was no DNA to test. After it was discovered that prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense, Miles was released in 2009 (but not officially exonerated). In 2010, the original eyewitness recanted his testimony, claiming that prosecutors coerced him into identifying Miles as the perpetrator.

Miles is one of many men who have recently been exonerated in Dallas, TX. The stories of several of these men are told in the book “Tested: How Twelve Wrongfully Imprisoned Men Held Onto Hope” by Peyton and Dorothy Budd. MWN

Two Years After Wrongfully Convicted Richard Miles Was Released, He’s Officially Innocent

by Leslie Minora

Free for two years, Richard Miles has nevertheless waited and waited for today — the official acknowledgement that he did not commit the  murder and attempted murder at a Texaco near Bachman Lake in 1994 for which he was sent to prison. The detailed 52-page opinion handed down from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reads like the outline of a Hitchcock film, detailing two police reports that weren’t disclosed at the time of Miles’s conviction, a 2010 recantation from the only uninvolved eyewitness and the determination that the small amount of gunshot residue on Miles’ hand was inconclusive. All of which amounted to the decision that the wrong man spent 14 years behind bars.

“When we balance the newly available evidence … with other exculpatory evidence and the evidence of guilt presented at trial, we are satisfied that Applicant has shown by clear and convincing evidence that no rational jury would convict him in light of the new evidence,” reads the court’s opinion released today.

The Dallas County District Attorney’s office recommended Miles’s release in 2009 after they determined that flaws in his trial violated his constitutional rights. Since his release more than two years ago, he’s been working, piecing his life back together and finding support in other exonerees as he waited for a decision from the state court, which must rule on all exoneration cases. But finally, as of today Miles can file for state compensation for his years spent locked up.

“This is going to be great for him because now he can do some of the things he wanted to do” like help his mother, said Charles Chatman, an exoneree who was released in 2008. Chatman and the other exonerees, including Miles, meet monthly, and Chatman tells Unfair Park that he and the other guys have given Miles a helping had since his release.

“We have helped him,” Chatman says, quickly adding that Miles isn’t “the kind of person who just depends on nobody.” Miles has been getting by working at a hotel, Chatman said, but even finding a job was difficult without a declaration of “actual innocence.”  (more…)

Beyond DNA

Dallas DA, Craig Watkins

By Alan Bean

The Dallas Observer recently published Leslie Minora’s extensive piece on the shift to non-DNA exonerations in Dallas County.  DA Craig Watkins has been accused of grandstanding, Minora says, but his ideological opponents usually overlook the unusual context in which the Maverick prosecutor works:

What his critics ignore is Dallas County’s reputation as a place where prosecutors aimed to convict at all costs. Changing that culture in a conservative, law-and-order minded place like Dallas is difficult. What his critics see as media whoring could just as easily be considered the sort of necessary publicity to change the political culture and — not coincidentally — keep Watkins in office. Watkins, a former criminal defense lawyer, Texas’ first black district attorney and the first Democrat to win the Dallas office since 1986, took a political gamble in establishing the unit. As non-DNA cases increasingly become the unit’s focus, the stakes grow higher as the cases lose the protective hedge of objective, science-based evidence. “I’m sure the day will come when there will be political fallout as the result of a decision we make to exonerate someone with no science. That’s inevitable. That will happen,” Watkins says. But as Duke and others can attest, it’s a risk Watkins is willing to take.

The article notes that Watkins’ Conviction Integrity Unit dealt with the easy, smoking-gun DNA cases first.  But what about the 85% of criminal cases that involve no meaningful DNA evidence?

. . . the sheer number of DNA exonerations — and the efforts to uncover how the courts failed so miserably — have revealed troubling gaps in the criminal justice system: Eyewitnesses are more fallible than jurors might think; forensic evidence isn’t always reliable or interpreted correctly; the way police run lineups can lead to wrongful convictions. The trouble is, those problems may just as easily plague cases in which no DNA exists. Modern science has shown the justice system the tip of the iceberg, but how many innocent men and women are suffering in prison and likely to stay there because they have no evidence to test? Where do law enforcement and innocence advocates, faced with sorting out the guilty and innocent, go from here?

The move to non-DNA exonerations will be difficult, Minora predicts.  Recanting witnesses, ambiguous evidence and gross prosecutorial misconduct may raise concerns about the legitimacy of a conviction; but there is no real substitute for the slam dunk certainty DNA evidence can provide.  How will the public respond to cases that, although riddled with issues that undermine confidence in a conviction, fall short of the sure-fire proof of actual innocence to which residents of Dallas County have grown accustomed?   

Beyond DNA, Difficult Tests for the Justice System is highly recommended.  In an entertaining and revealing section, Minora puts Craig Watkins (the most progressive prosecutor in Texas) against Williamson County’s John Bradley, arguably the most law-n-order DA in the Lone Star State.  Grits for Breakfast reported this morning that the Texas Bar Association has dismissed the grievance filed against Bradley in connection with the Michael Morton case.  This suggests that, here in Texas anyway, Bradley’s insistence that the guilty remain behind bars still trumps Watkins’ fears about wrongful conviction.