Category: DNA testing

For God’s sake, test the DNA!

Hank Skinner

By Alan Bean

Before the State of Georgia killed Troy Davis, I would have bet good money that Texas wouldn’t execute Hank Skinner without bothering to test the DNA evidence.  But now all bets are off.

Common sense suggests that a simple DNA test should be performed in the interest of justice.  What have we got to lose (other than our reputation as a nation that guarantees liberty and justice)?

The State of Texas argues that Skinner had a chance to ask for DNA testing and he failed to take advantage. 

This may strike you as a peculiar argument, but in the Alice and Wonderland world of modern jurisprudence, procedure is everything and common sense counts for nothing.  It doesn’t matter what the DNA might tell us; the constitutionally guaranteed window of opportunity is now closed.

Killing Hank Skinner is a bad idea, practically and on principle.  But if we’re in the people-killing business, shouldn’t we at least make sure they are guilty of something really bad?  If you think so, please keep reading.  

Will Texas Kill an Innocent Man Next Week?

Hank Skinner is scheduled to die on November 9. But the state of Texas may execute him without even conducting DNA tests on all of the evidence from his trial, despite a decade of requests from Hank and his lawyers. (more…)

Behind bars without proof of guilt: The case of Everton Wagstaffe

Everton Wagstaffe

by Melanie Wilmoth

You can find a NYT update on this story here.

Everton Wagstaffe has been in prison for over 18 years.

Since his arrest, Wagstaffe has unyieldingly claimed his innocence and fought for his release, yet he remains behind bars serving out a 25-year sentence for second degree kidnapping.

Although Wagstaffe completed his minimum sentence several years ago, he remains in prison, refusing to go before the parole board and admit guilt for a crime he did not commit. Several years ago, he qualified for a “conditional release” which would have set him free as long as he followed a strict set of rules and guidelines. Claiming his innocence, Wagstaffe refused to sign the release, not wanting to comply with the guideline requiring him to register as a sex offender.

The case against Wagstaffe began on New Years Day 1992. On this day, 16-year-old Jennifer Negron was kidnapped in Brooklyn, New York. Hours after the kidnapping, her body was discovered dead in the street. (more…)

Michael Morton and the case for Texas criminal justice reforms

Michael Morton

By Melanie Wilmoth

Michael Morton spent 25 years behind bars for the murder of his wife, Christine, before he was released based on DNA evidence that pointed to another suspect.

In Morton’s case, there was a wealth of evidence suggesting Morton was not the murderer, but prosecutors never pursued another suspect. Prosecutors were convinced, despite no clear evidence, that Morton was guilty.

It is a classic case of prosecutorial tunnel vision.

As Texas Sen. Rodney Ellis so aptly points out, “The role of the prosecutor is to discover the truth, but oftentimes there’s more interest in getting a conviction.”

Morton’s case is one of hundreds that highlights flaws within the Texas criminal justice system. However, the question remains: Will Texas actually see this case as a sign that serious criminal justice reforms are necessary to prevent prosecutorial misconduct and the continuance of wrongful convictions?

(Check out a related post over at Grits for Breakfast.)

Morton Case Sparks Calls for Texas Evidence Law Reform

by Brandi Grissom

Not long after his mother was murdered, 3-and-a-half-year-old Eric Morton began to tell his grandmother what he had seen that terrible day.

“Mommy’s crying. She’s — Stop it. Go away,” his grandmother said he told her. She asked why his mother was crying.

“’Cause the monster’s there,” Eric said.

Gingerly, she pressed for more details.

“He hit Mommy. He broke the bed,” her grandson said.

“Is Mommy still crying?”

“No, Mommy stopped.” (more…)

Balko: Why Americans still support the death penalty

By Radley Balko

It has long been the conventional wisdom on both sides of the death penalty debate that if a state or the federal government were ever shown to have executed an innocent person, we’d see a dramatic drop in support for state executions. In the 2006 case Kansas v. Marsh, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a death penalty supporter, called the search for a wrongly executed person the “Holy Grail” of death penalty opponents.

But a little less than two years after David Grann made a convincing argument in The New Yorker that the state of Texas had done just that, public support for capital punishment hasn’t wavered. In October 2009, Grann wrote about Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in 2004 for setting the fire that killed his three young children. Willingham was convicted because of forensic testimony from fire officials that arson experts call junk science. (more…)

Troy Davis and the growing case against eyewitness ID

by Melanie Wilmoth

The case against Troy Davis hinged on the eyewitness testimony of several individuals who claimed that Davis shot police officer Mark MacPhail. Many began to have serious doubts about Davis’ guilt, however, after several witnesses recanted their original testimony. Despite witness recantations, hundreds of thousands of petitions, and international protests against Troy’s execution, the state of Georgia remained steadfast in its belief that Davis was guilty and, ultimately, executed him.

In a recent Associated Press article, Michael Tarm and Eric Tucker highlight how the controversy around Troy Davis’ execution has sparked debate about the accuracy of eyewitness identifications.

Davis’ execution came at a time in which the reliability of eyewitness identifications was increasingly questioned. Studies on the fallibility of human memory as well as a host of recent DNA exonerations have contributed to the doubt surrounding the accuracy of eyewitness ID, and increased concerns that these identifications may lead to wrongful convictions.

Just last month, we reported that the New Jersey Supreme Court decided to reform rules around eyewitness ID, requiring more rigorous evaluations of eyewitness identifications and making it easier for defendants to challenge eyewitness testimony. Several other states have recently attempted to reduce the reliance on eyewitness identification as well.

As Tarm and Tucker point out, the doubt surrounding Davis’ conviction and subsequent execution will likely “fuel the eyewitness ID debate” and will hopefully lead to more sound rules and regulations regarding the use of eyewitness identification. Check out what they have to say in their article below.

You may also want to check out a related article published by Time Magazine.

Troy Davis execution fuels eyewitness ID debate

(AP)  SAVANNAH, Ga. — When Georgia executed Troy Davis last week, it brushed aside international protests that too many witnesses had recanted trial testimony that he was the gunman who killed a police officer in 1989.

The issue raised in Davis’s case, however, is getting harder to ignore. With scientific studies showing the human memory can be surprisingly faulty, the once-damning weight of eyewitness testimony has come under question in courts and state legislatures. (more…)

Anything that smells of race and civil rights . . .

Viola Davis (left) appears in a scene from the motion picture The Help.By Alan

Jerry Mitchell, a columnist with the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, writes that The Help has been a financial boon for the Delta town of Greenwood (where most of the movie was filmed) and for the entire state of Mississippi.  But a comment from Fred Zollo, the producer of Mississippi Burning and Ghosts of Mississippi, grabbed my attention. “[The Help] is hardly a civil rights film,” Zollo said. “If you do anything that smells of race and civil rights, very few people will want to see it.”

Zollo is right.  American audiences can deal with Jim Crow racism and the civil rights movement as subplots, but we aren’t ready to face these realities head on.  

This isn’t just about popular entertainment.  The mere mention of racial injustice hooks an immediate “Oh please!” (with exaggerated eye-rolling) from most white Americans. 

Thus it has ever been.  In his excellent Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise, Kevin M. Schultz show how three faith communities transformed America from a Protestant hegemon into a Judeo-Christian nation.  In the 1930s, in response to the renewed KKK bigotry of the post WW1 era and the rise of Hitler’s Nazis in Germany, thousands of “trialogues” featuring a Protestant pastor, a Roman Catholic priest and a Jewish Rabbi were held all across America.  During the Second World War, the three faiths teamed up with the USO to tell millions of soldiers that the Judeo-Christian tradition made American democracy possible.

One soldier was so moved by this demonstration of unity that he approached the speakers after the meeting. 

The soldier was of Greek origin ad was born Greek Orthodox but had not attended church “for a long time” and had grown cynical, thinking “there was too much that was farce” in religion.  He had been persecuted for his faith too and he had, in turn, “persecuted the colored race and looked down upon other groups.”  But at one of the Camp Meetigs, “a miracle happened to me there . . . As Rabbi Goldstein was speaking I was standing beside a colored soldier.  All at once a new feeling came over me.  I looked up to the heavens and thought that in spite of the inequalities of life and all the troubles of the world there was something great and good worth fighting for and dying for, if need be.  Chaplain, the young man said, “my religion is going to mean something to me from now on.”

If Protestants, Catholics and Jews could dramatize their unity, bridging the color line was the natural next step.  But the National Conference of Christians and Jews made a conscious decision to avoid the race issue.  Hollywood followed suit.  Although eager to address the issue of “intolerance” in a generic way, race was off the table. 

Frank Sinatra and the executives at RKO studios made a similar decision in 1944.  Throughout the war, Sinatra had added an epilogue to nearly every one of his weekly performances on CBS’s Old Gold show.  He gave a brief lecture on a “very, very important subject known as tolerance.”  Sinatra would describe a situation where some form of “intolerance” was on display in America, usually through a fictional scenario involving a child being persecuted because of his or her race or religion.  Sinatra concluded his lectures explaining why this kind of intolerance was wrong.

Wishing to capitalize on the success of Sinatra’s “tolerance” segments, RKO pictures decided to film a fictional radio program. 

There was, however, one adaptation made by RKO executives when it brought Sinatra’s tolerance story to the silver screen: race was excised . . . The film featured no black kids and, most remarkably, it even discussed the generosity of the tormented Jewish boy’s father, who gave blood to the Red Cross without regard to whether a Catholic or Protestant or Jew received it.  This was an odd statement considering there was never any consideration of dividing blood by religion, while the Red Cross famously segregated blood from black donors.

In The Help, white socialites endorse the construction of separate toilets for black maids.  Nothing in the film gets closer to the spirit of Jim Crow racism.  When we realize that African American males comprise less than 7% of the America population but over 40% of the prison population and 60% of those exonerated by DNA evidence, our lack of progress is evident.  The problem persists because, in majority white settings, it is difficult to even raise the racial justice issue let alone deal with it.

Eyewitness Identification and Wrongful Convictions

By Melanie Wilmoth

I recently had the opportunity to attend a book club hosted by CitySquare in Dallas. At this event, we discussed the book, Tested: How Twelve Wrongly Imprisoned Men Held onto Hope by Peyton and Dorothy Budd. Their book tells the stories of twelve men who were imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. As a result of DNA testing and the introduction of new evidence, these men were recently exonerated. Unfortunately, by the time of exoneration, many of these men had spent 5, 10, or even 20 years in prison.

Although Dallas leads the nation in DNA exonerations, wrongful convictions are a problem throughout the US.

It was simply a fluke that over the decades Dallas happened to save and store the evidence needed to run DNA tests. In most cities, such physical evidence was destroyed long ago…This is not just a Dallas problem…Across the nation thousands upon thousands of innocent people are in prison for crimes they did not commit.” – Dorothy Budd

The majority of these wrongful convictions are a result of faulty eyewitness identification. Despite the fact that this type of testimony is unreliable, prosecutors across the nation continue to rely on eyewitnesses.

However, new rules issued by the New Jersey Supreme Court will affect how eyewitness testimony is used in the courts. These rules require more rigorous evaluation of eyewitness identifications and make it easier for defendants to challenge eyewitness testimony. Criminal justice reform advocates are hopeful that these new rules will significantly reduce the number of wrongful convictions and that other states will soon follow in New Jersey’s lead.

In New Jersey, Rules Are Changed on Witness IDs

By Benjamin Weiser

The New Jersey Supreme Court, acknowledging a “troubling lack of reliability in eyewitness identifications,” issued sweeping new rules on Wednesday making it easier for defendants to challenge such evidence in criminal cases.

The court said that whenever a defendant presents evidence that a witness’s identification of a suspect was influenced, by the police, for instance, a judge must hold a hearing to consider a broad range of issues. These could include police behavior, but also factors like lighting, the time that had elapsed since the crime or whether the victim felt stress at the time of the identification. (more…)

What happens when “guilt or innocence was never on the table”?

By Lisa D’Souza

Eighteen years ago, three teenaged boys were accused of murdering three 8-year-old boys.  These three teens were suspected because they were weird.  The way they dressed and what they believed were not the norm for the Arkansas town of West Memphis.  And when the bodies of three young children were found mutilated and hogtied, the police and prosecutors were convinced it was the work of a Satanic cult.  Police suspected then-18-year-old Damien Echols, a goth kid who wore all black and called himself a Wiccan.  After an interrogation lasting some 12 hours, police got Echols’ friend, then-17-year-old Jessie Misskelley, Jr., to confess and implicate both Echols and 16-year-old Jason Baldwin.   Never mind that the specifics of his confession did not match the evidence collected from the crime scene.  The state was convinced it had apprehended the murderers.  The teens were arrested and became known as the West Memphis Three.

Not much later, Misskelley recanted.  The trial judge decided, based on the circumstances under which he confessed, that Misskelley’s confession could not be admitted as proof of their guilt at trial.  So the West Memphis Three were tried for murder.  There was no reliable confession.  There was no physical evidence that tied them to the crime scene.  No forensic evidence was discovered that linked them either.  The state’s proof was statements of people who said that they heard or overheard the three teens discussing the murders.  That was it.  That and the certainty of the police and prosecutors that they were right. The West Memphis Three were convicted.  Echols was sentenced to death, Misskelley and Baldwin to life.   (more…)

Speak Out: Join the Campaign to End Forced Confessions

By Melanie Wilmoth

Take a moment to check out the campaign to end forced confessions and wrongful convictions launched by our friends at

Their campaign centers on the cases of ten Black men (known as the Dixmoor Five and the Englewood Five) in Cook County, Illinois who were convicted of murder in the 1990s based solely on forced confessions. Some of the men, who were merely teenagers at the time of conviction, have been behind bars for almost 20 years.

Despite recent DNA evidence that proves the men were wrongfully convicted, six of the ten men remain in prison and the Cook County State’s Attorney refuses to overturn their convictions.

Unfortunately, this is nothing new for Illinois. The state is plagued with a history of police coercion and forced confessions. From 1972 to 1991, Chicago Police Department Lieutenant Jon Burge and officers under his supervision used torture tactics such as beating, suffocation, and electric shock to force hundreds of suspects to confess to crimes.

Although Burge was fired in 1993 and is currently serving a 4.5-year sentence for lying about witnessing and participating in the torture of suspects, he has never been charged with abuse.

As history tells us, it is all too common for cases involving coercion and forced confessions to go unquestioned. Please consider speaking out about the wrongful convictions of the Dixmoor and Englewood Five by signing’s petition.

To learn more about these cases, click here.

When proof isn’t possible

By Chaka Holley

“Innocent until proven guilty is the old mantra”; but a convicted defendant is “guilty until proven innocent.” James Legate and his wife, Yolanda, are attempting to prove his innocence as he sits behind bars in Texas.

Legate was convicted of the murder of Eddie Garcia, a San Antonio businessman. Garcia, known as the “Bingo King” owned a home-health care business, tons of real estate and managed prize fighters. He is also known for giving a $35,000 bribe to former Congressman Albert Bustamante. The two of them were under FBI investigation. A federal jury found Bustamante guilty of racketeering but Garcia was never indicted. Friends of Garcia have also alluded to Garcia being involved in other illegal practices.

Legate, on the other hand, was the man on trial. His job repossessing cars landed Legate in the middle of a murder scene. It was like a scene from a television crime show. After having drinks at a sports bar, Legate reports going to Garcia’s office in search of Marilyn Maddox, a woman who had recently worked for Garcia and was behind on her car payments. Legate explained that he visited the office in an attempt to repossess her car. (more…)