Category: wrongful conviction

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…)

Former FBI Chief says Troy Davis should not die

By Alan Bean

In an op-ed written for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, William Sessions asks the State of Georgia not to execute Troy Davis.

Four Months ago I predicted that the State of Georgia would not execute Troy Davis

It wasn’t suggesting that mercy tinged with common sense would prevail. 

In the absence of outside scrutiny, there is no question that Georgia would send Mr. Davis to God without a single qualm.   (more…)

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.

Fox News lacks Common courtesy


This summer, four college interns will be working at the Arlington office of Friends of Justice.  Each week, each intern will write a blog post on a topic of personal interest.  Chaka Holley, a student at the Chicago Theological Seminary, arrived in Texas on Monday night and has been hard at work ever since.  

By Chaka Holley

“Well I’m just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood”

Hip-hop artist, poet and actor Common recites these old-time lyrics in his song “misunderstood”. The lyrics seem fitting now that Common’s creditability, character and personhood are being attacked after First Lady Michelle Obama invited him to perform poetry at a White House event. Fox News and conservatives like Sarah Palin, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity have criticized the Obama’s for the inviting a supporter of “cop killers” to the White House. Critics accuse the Obama’s of exercising poor judgment due to Common’s support for Asata Shakur and Mumia Abu-Jamal. (more…)

Civil rights community divided as exonerees take their own lawyers to court

By Alan Bean

I first discussed this story in December of 2009 when the controversy between exonerated Texans and their former attorneys appeared on the pages of the Dallas Morning News.  Lubbock attorney Kevin Glasheen signed a standard contingency contract with a number of exonerees that gave him 25% of the eventual settlement with the city of Dallas.  The clients eventually got their money, but it didn’t come from the city of Dallas.  Instead, Glasheen lobbied the state legislature to enact a dramatic increase in the amount the wrongfully convicted are reimbursed.  The contract says nothing about a fee for lobbying efforts and the clients say they don’t owe Mr. Glasheen (and Jeff Blackburn, the Innocence Project of Texas attorney who enlisted Glasheen’s efforts) a nickel.

A year and a half later, the issue is going before the state bar.   John Schwartz of the New York Times, summarizes the central issues thusly:

The word “lobbying” does not appear in the contracts, and perhaps with good reason. Much of the legal world operates on contingency fees, allowing people with no money to get to court. The lawyer takes on the financial risk and, if successful, reaps a healthy chunk of the reward. But in Texas it is a felony to lobby the Legislature on a contingent-fee basis, because it can skew the incentives underlying public policy.

(Over at Grits for Breakfast, Scott Henson takes issue with the accuracy of the Times article.)

But this isn’t just a dispute over billing fees and the interpretation of legal contracts; the issue has emotional and moral components.  No one should denigrate civil rights attorneys for charging a healthy fee for their services.  Law school is expensive and attorneys frequently invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in the cases they litigate.  But most criminal justice reform advocates wish to believe that, for those involved in the legal side of the justice fight, altruism and a sense of higher purpose is part of the motivational mix.  The advocacy community in Texas is divided over precisely this issue and there is no strictly legal answer.  (more…)