Category: innocence

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: http://www.npr.org/2012/01/02/144489360/how-a-teens-coerced-confession-set-her-free?sc=fb&cc=fp

Learn more about coerced confessions at: http://falseconfessions.org/false-confessions-happenand at: http://www.truthaboutfalseconfessions.com/

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…)

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…)

The hardest cases: When children die, justice can be elusive

Ernie Lopez

The following story, produced in collaboration with PBS “Frontline” and NPR, is based on the investigations of dozens of cases in which flimsy evidence was used to wrongfully accuse and convict individuals in cases where children were killed. Child death cases are never easy. Often, the desire to “get to the bottom of the case” and obtain justice for the victim can cloud the judgement of those involved in researching and investigating the case. The stories of the individuals below highlight the need for more thorough investigations and stricter regulations around the use of forensic pathology to ensure a fair and just criminal justice system. MW

The Hardest Cases: When Children Die, Justice Can Be Elusive

by A.C. Thompson and Chisun Lee, ProPublica, and Joe Shapiro and Sandra Bartlett, NPR

Her name was Isis Charm Vas and at 6 months old she was a slight child — fifth percentile in height and weight.

When the ambulance sped her to Northwest Texas Hospital on a Saturday morning in October 2000, doctors and nurses feared that someone had done something awful to her delicate little body.

A constellation of bruises stretched across her pale skin. CT scans showed blood pooling on her brain and swelling. Her vagina was bleeding, as well. The damage was so severe that her body’s vital organs were shutting down.

Less than 24 hours later, Isis died.

An autopsy bolstered the initial suspicions that she’d been abused. Dr. Joni McClain, a forensic pathologist, ruled Isis’ death a homicide and said the baby had been sexually violated. McClain would later describe it as a “classic” case of blunt force trauma, the type of damage often done by a beating.

The police investigation that followed was constructed almost entirely from medical evidence. In the end, prosecutors indicted one of the child’s babysitters: Ernie Lopez.

Today, Lopez is serving a 60-year prison term for sexual assault and is still facing capital murder charges.

But in the years since Lopez was sent to the penitentiary, a growing body of evidence has emerged suggesting that McClain and the hospital staffers were wrong about what happened to Isis — and that her death was not the result of a criminal attack. (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…)