Category: innocence

How many innocent people have we sent to prison?

I can’t read stories like this without thinking of the Tulia defendants, the Colomb family, Alvin ClayCurtis Flowers and Ramsey Muniz, innocent people Friends of Justice has featured in narrative campaigns.  Some of these people are now in the free world; others are still locked up.  This story in The Nation asks the obvious question: If so many people can prove their innocence, how many innocent people are still locked up?  Can it possibly be as high as the 136,000 suggested below?  And how did they come up with that number?  Read on.  AGB

How many innocent people have we sent to prison?

By Liz Webster
The Nation

When Beverly Monroe met her new neighbors in the free world after spending seven years in a Virginia prison for a crime she didn’t commit, she spoke candidly about her past. “I said I’d been through a crisis,” she says. “People immediately think a divorce or you lost your husband or something like that, which is all terrible enough.” (more…)

Texas executes wrong man

In 1989, Carlos DeLuna was executed for the killing of a gas station attendant in Corpus Christi, TX.  His conviction rested solely on eyewitness testimony.  Over twenty years after his execution, the Columbia Human Rights Law Review has published a report stating that DeLuna was not the murderer.  

In reality, the murderer was most likely another Carlos, Carlos Hernandez.  Hernandez was also at the scene of the crime, but fled in the other direction while police detained DeLuna.  Despite DeLuna’s pleas of innocence and the prosecution’s lack of reliable evidence, DeLuna was found guilty of murder. And an innocent man was executed.

Sadly, this is just another chilling tale of our flawed justice system.  MWN

Wrong man was executed in Texas, probe says

By Chantal Valery

He was the spitting image of the killer, had the same first name and was near the scene of the crime at the fateful hour: Carlos DeLunapaid the ultimate price and was executed in place of someone else in Texas in 1989, a report out Tuesday found.

Even “all the relatives of both Carloses mistook them,” and DeLuna was sentenced to death and executed based only on eyewitness accounts despite a range of signs he was not a guilty man, said law professor James Liebman.

Liebman and five of his students at Columbia School of Law spent almost five years poring over details of a case that he says is “emblematic” of legal system failure.

DeLuna, 27, was put to death after “a very incomplete investigation. No question that the investigation is a failure,” Liebman said. (more…)

“The real CSI”: Forensic science in the courtroom

If you tune into any popular television crime drama these days, you are likely to find a familiar formula — a murder occurs, an investigation ensues, the perpetrator is identified using some forensic evidence, and justice is served.  In the end, everything is wrapped up in a neat little bow.  

Although this popular plot format may make for good ratings, it isn’t rooted in reality.  In the real world, most cases aren’t clean-cut, investigations can drag on for years, and forensic science tools can be unreliable.  In some cases, questionable forensic evidence can lead to wrongful convictions, leaving innocent people behind bars.

In “The Real CSI,” which airs Tuesday, April 17, 2012, at 10 P.M. ET on PBS (check your local listings), FRONTLINE and ProPublica take an in-depth look at the use of forensic science in the courtroom.  Check out the press release below for more information.  MWN


Tuesday, April 17, 2012, at 10 P.M. ET on PBS
Twitter: @frontlinepbs

Evidence collected at crime scenes—everything from fingerprints to bite marks—is routinely called upon in the courtroom to prosecute the most difficult crimes and put the guilty behind bars. And though glamorized on commercial television, in the real world, it’s not so cut-and-dried. A joint investigation by FRONTLINE, ProPublica and the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley examines the reliability of the science behind forensics in “The Real CSI,” airing Tuesday, April 17, 2012, at 10 P.M. ET on PBS (check local listings).

FRONTLINE correspondent Lowell Bergman finds serious flaws in some of the best known tools of forensic science and wide inconsistencies in how forensic evidence is presented in the courtroom. From the sensational murder trial of Casey Anthony to the credentialing of forensic experts, Bergman documents how a field with few uniform standards and unproven science can undermine the search for justice.  (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.

Ernie Lopez: “Free, but not cleared.”

Ernie Lopez

by Melanie Wilmoth Navarro

Last year, Friends of Justice wrote a post about the NPR and PBS Frontline research on child death cases. Based on the dozens of cases investigated, NPR and PBS Frontline found that flimsy evidence is often used to convict individuals in child death cases. They found numerous individuals who had been wrongfully convicted based on faulty forensic science.

Ernie Lopez was one of those individuals.

Lopez, a child care provider, was watching six-month old Isis Vas in October 2000 when the baby collapsed. Lopez called 911 and Isis was rushed to the hospital, but she died the next day. Baby Isis was bleeding and bruised when she arrived at the hospital, and forensic scientists testified that Isis had been abused before her death. According to NPR, “Lopez was indicted on capital murder and sexual assault charges. Prosecutors tried him on the sexual assault count, and he was convicted and sentenced to 60 years in prison.”

The extensive research conducted by NPR and PBS Frontline, however, uncovered a previously unknown factor in Lopez’s case: “Isis Vas had a severe blood clotting disorder, one that caused bruising and bleeding that mimicked the signs of physical and sexual abuse.” (more…)

“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…)

Coerced confessions: One way wrongful convictions happen

by Lisa D’Souza

It seems impossible to imagine confessing to a serious crime that you know you did not commit.  That’s why confessions make such great evidence.  Juries almost always believe them.  And yet, false confessions happen.  They usually happen in serious felony cases; 80% of coerced confessions uncovered in one study were obtained in murder investigations.  A significant number of the convictions overturned by DNA evidence were based on coerced confessions.  Others remain in jail on cases in which DNA evidence exonerates them but based on their confession judges and prosecutors refuse to consider the conviction wrongful.

Young people or people with mental retardation are more susceptible to making a false confessions.  Another study found that 63% of false confessors were under the age of 25, and 32% were under 18; yet of all persons arrested for murder and rape, only 8 and 16%, respectively, are juveniles.   In a 2005 study at Williams College, students gave false confessions when confronted with manufactured evidence.

Police are trained to interrogate suspects using psychological methods.  These interrogation techniques are powerfully coercive and are designed to destroy the suspect’s hope and confidence.  Police often lie to suspects about the evidence against them and make false promises about what will happen if they provide a confession.  The police, convinced before the interrogation that the suspect is guilty, go to great lengths to obtain a confession.  The prosecution is then convinced by the confession that the suspect is guilty.

And that is how many wrongful convictions happen.

Nga Truong spent her 17th, 18th and 19th birthdays in jail after being coerced into confessing that she murdered her infant son.  Why would she say she killed her baby when she hadn’t?  Read more about Nga Truong at:

Learn more about coerced confessions at: at:

Out in the cold: arrogant indifference in the federal legal system

A Texas Monthly story argues that the federal justice system is less responsive to claims of actual innocence than tough on crime states like Texas.  Richard LaFuente, the federal inmate at the center of  Michael Hall’s investigative story, is incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution in Fort Worth, a ten-minute drive from the Friends of Justice office.

I spent four hours at FCI Fort Worth last night, three hours waiting to visit an inmate and one hour actually visiting.  Monty Shelton, the inmate I was visiting, can prove that most of the counts on which he was convicted nine years ago were in error.  He just wants an evidentiary hearing so he can make his case, but the federal appeals system ignores his arguments.  No one has ever refuted his legal logic; they don’t have to. 

I will have much more to say about the Monty Shelton case when our Friends of Justice investigation is complete.  But right now I want to tell you why it took three hours to get into (and out of) FCI Fort Worth last night.  (If you don’t want to hear my plaintive tale, you can just scroll down to the Texas Monthly story below).

I arrived at 5:30, the time visitation was slated to begin.  Noticing that several dozen people were standing in line waiting to enter the building, I took my place at the back of the queue.  “Do you have a paper?” a young woman asked.  “You have to get your paper before you get in this line.”

I entered the building and filled out a one-page form with my name, the name and number of the inmate I wished to visit, the license number of my 2000 Toyota and check marks in the “no” box indicating that I wasn’t smuggling illegal drugs or other nasty stuff into the prison.  Then I returned to the back of the line.

I was soon joined by a man in his early fifties who had traveled to Fort Worth from Oklahoma to visit his son prior to Christmas.  The boy had held up a bank on a dare as a late adolescent and had been sentenced to fifteen years.  His parents were both educators who had taught at Christian schools in China, Japan, Korea and several other exotic places.  They had traveled to four different prisons in Oklahoma, Texas and California over the past twelve years.

“This line doesn’t get you into the visitation room,” the father informed me.  “Once we get inside they will give us a beeper so we can go and wait in our cars where its warmer.”

We had only been waiting in the cold for ten minutes at that point, but I wasn’t adequately dressed and was already getting uncomfortable.  Glancing around at the 100 or so other people in line, I could see that most were even less prepared for the chilly conditions than I was.  The temperature had risen to over 60 F in Fort Worth earlier in the day but a cool front was moving in and the temperature was rapidly plunging toward the freezing mark.  A brisk breeze added to the frigid effect.

The line moved at a crawl.  Half an hour into our wait, I asked my friend to hold my place in line so I could talk to the woman inside.  “Is there any good reason why these good people have to wait in the cold this long just to get a beeper?” I asked.

“We don’t have many beepers,” the harried woman told me.  “People keep stealing them and sometimes they just stop working.”

“How many beepers do you have?” I asked. 

“I don’t know,” she said.  “Not many.”

“How much does a beeper cost?” I asked incredulously.  “Because some of these people aren’t dressed for this weather and a lot of them will wake up with a cold tomorrow morning.”

“You need to talk to somebody above my pay grade,” the woman informed me.

“And who do you suggest I talk to?”

“The warden.”

“I’ll do that,” I replied.  It was clear my beef wasn’t with a low-level employee.

“And when you do,” she continued, “tell her that we’re so understaffed down here I can’t keep up–especially at this time of the year.”

I wondered why FCI Fort Worth, unlike most prisons, lacked a waiting room.  I knew in advance that the warden would blame the situation on inadequate funding and that she might well be right.  Still, I doubt anyone in the Department of Justice is particularly concerned about the plight of the men, women and children who drive long distances to visit their loved ones in federal prisons.  In my experience, the families of inmates are generally treated like criminals who have dodged their just desserts.  Prison and jail officials are typically harsh, rude, inconsiderate and unresponsive.  They are also overworked, underpaid and underappreciated.

By the time I returned to my place in line we had been waiting forty-five minutes.  “This is bad,” my friend told me, “but I’ve seen far worse.  When my son was in the Big Spring prison, we had to get in line at four in the morning and we didn’t get into the visiting room until after 10:00.”

“You waited six hours to get into the prison?” I asked in disbelief.

“Twice,” he replied with a weary shrug.  “Once it was really, really hot, and the other time it was bitterly cold.  It was miserable.”

“I wouldn’t say I’m miserable right now,” I responded, “but I’m getting uncomfortable.”

“I think I’ve made it to miserable,” he said. (more…)

Why is Jeremiah Paul Disnard still locked up?

By Melanie Wilmoth and Alan Bean

Jeremiah Paul Disnard was arrested on April 2, 2008.  He claims he was framed.

According to a letter Friends of Justice recently received from Disnard, shortly after he was arrested drugs were planted on his person in the back of a Dallas Police Department (DPD) patrol car by the arresting officers (Officers David Nevitt, David Durica, Jerry Dodd, Frank Poblez, and Sgt. Randy Sundquist). According to Disnard, the patrol car had both a “dash cam” and a camera facing the backseat of the car. However, the officers testified that the cameras were “malfunctioning” at the time of Disnard’s arrest.

Friends of Justice gets several letters making similar claims every week, but there is rarely anything we can do.  Once a defendant has been convicted, uncorroborated claims are legally worthless.

But Disnard’s case is different.

His story follows a familiar pattern (more…)