Category: wrongful conviction

How the US government used a Mexican drug lord to convict an innocent man

Ramsey Muniz runs for Texas governor in 1970

By Alan Bean

Ramsey (Ramiro) Muniz is a man of seventy who hobbles on a bad hip, but his spirit grows stronger with each passing day.  Ramsey has now spent two full decades in federal prisons (including three years in solitary confinement) for participating in an alleged narcotics conspiracy.  Supporters feel that a septuagenarian with a broken body and a vibrant heart is a sterling candidate for a presidential commutation.  I agree.  But first we must face a troubling question.  Somebody entered into a conspiracy with a Mexican drug lord, but was it Ramsey Muniz or was it the federal government?

Eager for a big media splash and an easy conviction, the Houston office of the DEA treated their counterparts in Dallas to a series of carefully staged events while intentionally obscuring the truth.  Those who testified at trial had no idea what was going on; those who knew the truth did not testify.  The DEA got a big media win, a drug lord got a plane ticket back to Mexico, and Ramsey Muniz got a life sentence.  (more…)

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…)

Registry of wrongful convictions tells us how, but not how many

The University of the Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law have produced a National Registry of Exonerations that claims to be “an up to date list of all known exonerations in the United States since 1989.”

Scott “Grits” Henson cautions that the 890 people who made the list constitute a representative sample.  In Texas, for instance, Dallas County has contributed dozens of names to the list while not a single exoneration from Bexar County (San Antonio) appears.  This says more about the due diligence of prosecutors in the respective counties than the proficiency of the criminal justice system.

Henson also points out that most successful exonerations take over a decade of tedious and often discouraging work  and only those who fight long and hard are ever successful.   

The registry lists only known exonerations because some exoneration stories get little or no attention.  I was pleased to note, for instance, that the names of Ann Colomb and three of her sons appear on the registry.   This was the first big case Friends of Justice tackled after the Tulia drug bust and, without our involvement, I fear the family would still be in prison or, if they were quietly exonerated, no one would have noticed.  As it was, Radley Balko, then of Reason magazine, was the only reporter I could entice into covering this disturbing story.  Alexandra Natapoff highlighted the Colomb story in her book on criminal informants and in some of her shorter pieces on the subject , but she only knew about the case because she heard me talk about it. 

How many other cases like this are out there?  The report doesn’t claim to be exhaustive.  “No matter how tragic they are, even 2,000 exonerations over 23 years is a tiny number in a country with 2.3 million people in prisons and jails. If that were the extent of the problem we would be encouraged by these numbers. But it’s not. These cases merely point to a much larger number of tragedies that we do not know about.”

Henson’s research suggests that approximately 1.5% of criminal cases in Texas involve wrongful convictions.  If so, 2,000 innocent people are currently behind bars in the Lone Star State.   

Henson concludes that the registry of exonerations tells us much more about how defendants are wrongfully convicted than it says about how many have suffered this fate.

 

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…)

Slandered couple vindicated

Mark and Rhonda Lesher

By Alan Bean

This is a story about the limits of free speech on the internet, but it is goes much deeper than that.  This is also about what happens when a small town defense attorney challenges the local power structure.

Vergil Richardson, a basketball coach in nearby Texarkana, lost his job the moment charges were filed.  He hired Mark Lesher, a local attorney with a reputation for independent judgment, to represent him.

The following year, Robert Bridges, the man responsible for arresting the Richardsons, made a run for sheriff.  Mark and Rhonda Lesher supported Bridges’ opponent, Royce Abbot, and used the Richardson raid as an example of the cowboy tactics routinely employed by Bridges and the rest of the local law enforcement establishment.

That’s when the nasty emails began to appear on Red River County’s Topix site.  The Leshers were accused of every low down, nasty deed imaginable. The message was simple: Do you want to vote for Royce Abbott, the man who pals around with drug-dealing rapists? 

The tactic was as successful as it was vicious; Bridges won the election.

The Richardsons were vindicated almost exactly three years after their ordeal began.  The delay was created when Judge John Miller, a close friend of County Attorney Val Varley, refused to recuse himself from the case.  Only when the Texas Attorney General’s Office took over the prosecution from Mr. Varley was Miller forced to step aside.  Eventually, an obvious injustice was belatedly averted.  (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

FRONTLINE AND PROPUBLICA EXAMINE FORENSIC SCIENCE IN THE COURTROOM

FRONTLINE Presents
“THE REAL CSI”
Tuesday, April 17, 2012, at 10 P.M. ET on PBS

www.pbs.org/frontline/real-csi
www.facebook.com/frontlinepbs
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…)