Category: wrongful conviction

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…)

The Elephant in the Room

By Lisa D’Souza

Yesterday, I attended a celebration of Timothy Cole’s life at which the State of Texas officially acknowledged the wrong done Mr. Cole by placing a historical marker at his grave.  Among the attendees were six men, all of whom had been arrested, tried and convicted of crimes they had not committed. Each of them served years, some decades, in prison before winning their release.

At the close of the luncheon event, Frederic White, the dean of Texas Wesleyan School of Law, who hosted the event, recollected a police encounter he had as a youngster zooming through town on his new bicycle. The police stopped him and accused him of having stolen it. He was carrying his bicycle registration in his pocket, and could prove the bike was in fact his, so the police allowed him to go on his way. (more…)

Improving Criminal Investigations

By Lisa D’Souza

On the national front, a bill pending in Congress seems to have stalled. In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), acting under statutory authority from Congress, published a blistering report on the state of forensic science. The report criticized crime labs for their reliance on improper or unproven scientific techniques and for exaggerated expert testimony, both of which can lead to wrongful convictions. The report called for the creation of an independent agency to govern forensic science standards.

While the bill in Congress calls for implementation of the report’s recommendations, it would house the forensic science agency within the Department of Justice. A Pro Publica’s article  explains why this would create a conflict of interest and do little to achieve the progress envisioned by the NAS report.

The U.S. Congress asked our preeminent scientific body to investigate the state of forensic science in our country. Congress received clear recommendations for improvement, but there is still no federal action. (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:

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.

A few bad apples in the Big Apple, or is the NYPD out of control?

By Alan Bean

Check out the New York Times index of recent NYPD stories and you will be amazed (and hopefully troubled) by what you find.  Today, defendant, Jason Arbeeny, a 14-year Police Department veteran who worked in the Brooklyn South unit, was convicted for planting drugs on innocent people.  But it isn’t just one bad apple cop.  Trial testimony suggests that NYPD narcotics cops frequently resort to faking cases when the end of the month finds them under quota.  It’s called “flaking”.

In related cases, eight other narcotics officers have been arrested, hundreds of drug cases have been dismissed, and over $1million has been paid out to settle false arrest lawsuits.  If these officers were accused by their victims there would be no consequences (cop vs. accused swearing matches always end badly for the accused), but in this case, the perpetrators were unfortunate enough to get caught up in an internal investigation.

And then there’s the story about the sixteen NYPD cops recently indicted for allegedly fixing thousands of tickets for high-profile clients (for a fee, of course).  Apparently this too was standard practice and, if the allegations hold up in court, several officers appear to have spent most of their working hours tracking down tickets at the behest of well-heeled customers.  The practice is so widespread that over 100 fellow officers crowded the State Supreme Court in the Bronx to protest the sixteen indictments.  “Just following orders” the placards read.  Officers allegedly manhandled media people attempting to cover the story.  (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…)

NYPD detective admits to fabricating drug buys to meet arrest quotas

Already in the spotlight for its racially biased “stop and frisk” tactics, the NYPD took another hit when Stephen Anderson, a former narcotics detective, admitted to falsifying drug buys and planting drugs on innocent people to meet arrest quotas. Based on Anderson’s testimony, NYPD supervisors put significant pressure on narcotics officers to meet buy-and-bust quotas. Check out the New York Daily News’ report on the issue below. MW

We fabricated drug charges against innocent people to meet arrest quotas, former detective testifies

by John Marzulli

A former NYPD narcotics detective snared in a corruption scandal testified it was common practice to fabricate drug charges against innocent people to meet arrest quotas.

The bombshell testimony from Stephen Anderson is the first public account of the twisted culture behind the false arrests in the Brooklyn South and Queens narc squads, which led to the arrests of eight cops and a massive shakeup.

Anderson, testifying under a cooperation agreement with prosecutors, was busted for planting cocaine, a practice known as “flaking,” on four men in a Queens bar in 2008 to help out fellow cop Henry Tavarez, whose buy-and-bust activity had been low.  (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…)