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The Virginia Department of Forensic Science disclosed DNA test results that could lead to more exonerations, a judge will finally determine if evidence from a crime lab in St. Paul is reliable, and Colorado defense lawyers are challenging DNA evidence due to possible contamination. Here is the round-up of news for the week:
In order to investigate the possibility of wrongful convictions, the Virginia Department of Forensic Science has disclosed DNA test results for over 70 cases where newly tested biological evidence failed to identify the convicted person. However, two state attorneys are withholding four DNA reports as they are critical to ongoing criminal investigations.
Nearly a year after defense attorneys first challenged drug evidence at the St. Paul crime lab, a Minnesota judge has allowed final comments and will release an order as quickly as possible. The drug evidence has been challenged due to possible contamination, lack of protocols and poorly trained personnel.
Colorado defense lawyers are challenging the admissibility of DNA evidence in the case of Austin Sigg due to possible contamination. The director of the state crime lab testified in court that a tray with multiple DNA samples showed irregularities in the results.
Researchers from France found a relationship between the speed of an object when it hits a piece of glass and the number of cracks that result. While this research could be used by forensic scientists to understand how glass breaks at the scene of the crime, it is only in its basic stages.
After hearing proposals to change how the National Science Foundation (NSF) chooses to fund its research projects, presidential science advisor John Holdren staunchly defended the peer review process, which is deemed the "gold standard" around the globe. While Holdren acknowledges Congress can review the process, he believes that the proposed legislation would destroy the basic principle of fundamental research.
An article in Tuesday's City Weekly discusses the extraordinary efforts of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center to free Debra Brown, whose case is still under appeal. Released in May 2011, Brown was declared innocent under the state's non-DNA factual innocence statute. The Attorney General then sent a message through his Twitter account that he would not appeal the decision. Shortly afterwards, he changed his mind.
City Weekly spoke to RMIC president Jensie Anderson about the decision:
Brown was convicted of murdering her boss, 75-year-old Lael Brown, in 1995 and spent 17 years behind bars before her release. RMIC has presented new evidence of alternate suspects and witnesses in their advocacy for Brown's exoneration.
The Utah Supreme Court is currently considering the appeal. If it reverses the judge's innocence finding, Brown could be sent back to prison. On the other hand, if it upholds the decision, Brown will be eligible for state compensation and will be one of the very few who has been exonerated under the statute. Utah is one of only two states that even has a factual innocence statute, which allows for a retrial in cases where there is newly discovered material evidence of innocence but no DNA evidence.
The City Weekly writes:
The Mississippi Supreme Court granted Mississippi death row inmate Willie Manning a stay of execution this afternoon, four hours before he was scheduled to die by lethal injection. Mississippi's highest court voted 8-1.
Hopefully, Manning, who has spent 20 years on death row maintaining his innocence in the deaths of Jon Steckler and Tiffany Miller, will now have the opportunity to do DNA testing that could prove his innocence. This past week, the FBI notified the state that there were flaws in both the hair and ballistics evidence that was used to convict Manning. The FBI also agreed to do the DNA testing.
Read a copy of the stay of execution order. (PDF)
More from the Clarion-Ledger.
Innocence Project Senior Staff Attorney Vanessa Potkin appeared on today's episode of "Democracy Now" to discuss the fate of Mississippi death row prisoner Willie Manning, who is scheduled for execution tonight. Manning was convicted on circumstantial evidence, including the testimony of a jailhouse informant who had previously given a statement implicating another person.
He has consistently maintained his innocence and has been seeking post-conviction DNA testing for years, insisting that technological strides made in the past 20 years could prove him innocent of the crime.
Join us in calling on Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant to stay Willie's execution and order DNA testing!
Watch the segment.
Even after the wrongfully convicted are cleared and released from prison, many of them are still haunted by the injustice and the lengthy period it can take to have it expunged from their records. Despite exoneration, many felony convictions remain on federal databases and become a hindrance as exonerees try to adjust to their newfound freedom, impeding efforts to find housing and employment.
The New York Times reports:
Vincent Moto, who served nearly nine years in prison for a rape and robbery DNA testing proved he didn't commit, was recently denied his petition to have his record expunged. Moto was exonerated in 1996.
Audrey Edmunds, who spent more than a decade in prison for the shaking death of an infant girl before new medical evidence prompted her conviction to be overturned, continues to struggle with the mark on her criminal record, though she was exonerated five years ago.
Read the full article.
Read more about the challenges that exonerated people face after release.
A screening of "After Innocence" tonight at 7 p.m. at Revolution Books in New York City will be followed by a discussion with the film's writer and producer, Marc Simon, as well as Innocence Project Case Analyst Edwin Grimsley. "After Innocence" is an award-winning documentary that features Innocence Project clients and their post-exoneration struggles to readjust to life in the free world.
Ohio's Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that a Portage County court must reconsider DNA testing for a death row inmate who was convicted of the 1990 murders of Cora and Bearnhardt Hartig, an elderly couple.
Tyrone Noling's previous requests for advanced DNA testing on a cigarette butt found at the scene of the crime were denied by the lower court. Previous DNA testing of the cigarette butt had excluded Noling, but Noling argues that more sophisticated testing may now be able to identify the source of the DNA.
The high court pointed to new standards and expanded criteria for testing approved by Ohio lawmakers in 2010 as their basis for allowing the appeal. The Columbus Dispatch reports:
Noling and Wood remain hopeful that the county court will order testing on the cigarette butt in order to compare the DNA samples to that of an alternative suspect.
Read the full article.
Read more about Noling's case.
A former criminalist from California who allegedly stole drug evidence is finally on trial, additional investigations have been requested for a Washington State crime lab, and a researcher studies blow flies to help investigators approximate the time of death. Here is the round up of forensic news for the week:
After being indicted for grant theft and possession of illegal drugs collected at a crime lab, a former California criminalist is finally on trial. The criminalist was discovered improperly handling drug evidence, which led to an investigation that found other evidence missing.
Although the original investigation that led to the resignation of a Washington crime lab manager due to his mishandling of case files has ended, an internal management audit and a full evidence audit have been requested. State and local prosecutors, the Washington State Forensics Investigative Council and the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors, Laboratory Accreditation Board were notified of the investigation.
A Rutgers University graduate student is researching the life cycle of blow flies to help investigators approximate the time of death of crime victims. While bodies decompose at various rates due to many variables, the life cycles of blow flies, which descend on dead bodies, are much more predictable.
In Missouri, problems with funding have delayed a project to implement a computer program that would conduct biometric analysis to prevent fraud. The facial recognition technology, similar to what was used to investigate the Boston marathon bombings, could catch individuals trying to produce multiple forms of photographic identification.
By Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, Innocence Project Co-Directors
(Originally published by the Clarion Ledger.)
Last week the Mississippi Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision denied Willie Manning the opportunity to do DNA testing that could prove he is innocent of the crime that landed him on death row. Tragically, Manning is scheduled to be executed on Thursday and may never get the opportunity to do the testing that could prove whether he is innocent as he has always maintained.
We urge Gov. Phil Bryant to issue a stay so the testing can be done. While people can differ on whether the death penalty is an appropriate form of punishment, nearly everyone would agree that it should be used only in those cases where we are certain of guilt. DNA testing could provide that certainty or prove, as Manning insists, that he is innocent. It could also, as the Mississippi Supreme Court judges noted in their dissent, provide the identity of alleged second perpetrator who has never been caught.
Eighteen people who served time on death row have been exonerated by DNA evidence since it became available two decades ago. One of those men, Kennedy Brewer, was convicted in Mississippi. Like Manning, Brewer was convicted based on circumstantial evidence and unvalidated forensic science. In Brewer's case, the prosecution relied on widely discredited bite mark testimony, and in Manning's case the prosecution presented hair microscopy, which because of its unreliability will be subject to a recently announced FBI nationwide review. The DNA evidence in Brewer's case proved his innocence and identified the real perpetrator who confessed to the crime and another murder for which someone had been wrongly convicted and sentenced to life. Fortunately, that man, Levon Brooks, was also exonerated.
We don't know what the DNA evidence will ultimately prove in Manning's case, but there is a good chance that it will be highly probative - and much more reliable than the kind of evidence that was used to convict him of the 1992 murders of Pamela Tiffany Miller and Jon Stephan Steckler. The two students were kidnapped after leaving a party at Mississippi State University and were driven to a remote location where Miller was raped and both were shot to death. At trial, there was no physical evidence linking Manning to the crime. The prosecution relied on circumstantial evidence. At one point the Mississippi Supreme Court overturned his conviction because Manning's lawyers weren't allowed to fully cross-examine the informant, but the court later reconsidered its decision and let the conviction stand.
Since 1994, Manning has been seeking DNA testing of the rape kit, fingernail scrapings that were recovered from both victims and hairs recovered from the scene. Rape kits and fingernail scrapings are routinely tested today because the testing can prove with near certainty who committed the crime. Before DNA evidence, prosecutors would often rely on hair microscopy to place a defendant at the scene even though the practice was never scientifically validated. After DNA evidence exonerated three people who had been wrongly convicted in part based on this type of evidence, the FBI announced this year that it would undertake a massive review of all cases in which one of its analysts testified about this type of evidence. Given that the FBI performed the hair microscopy in this case, it would seem that Manning's case should be subject to this review - if he isn't put to death first.
As the dissenters noted, given that it is alleged that two perpetrators committed the crime, it's puzzling that the district attorney is so resistant to testing.
The Mississippi Supreme Court has said that the DNA testing is unnecessary because there is other overwhelming evidence of guilt. But appeals courts were also wrong in the cases of all 306 DNA exonerations, including the 18 who served time on death row. DNA testing has the potential to tell us once and for all who committed these two tragic murders, and that's something we all should want.
In a new column in The Atlantic, contributing editor Andrew Cohen makes the case for testing DNA evidence for Willie Manning, a Mississippi man scheduled for execution next week despite a lack of physical evidence connecting him to two murders. Manning has spent 20 years on death row maintaining his innocence in the deaths of Jon Steckler and Tiffany Miller. Cohen cites several reasons that point to the need for testing.
Lawyers for the Mississippi Innocence Project filed a brief in favor of the testing to the Mississippi Supreme Court, who denied the request last week in a 5-4 ruling. Cohen writes:
In 48% of the 306 DNA exoneration cases, the real perpetrator was identified through a DNA match.
Urge Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant to stay the execution and allow Manning to do the DNA testing.
Read the full article.
Read about cases of people exonerated through DNA testing after serving time on death row.
Darrel Stephens (left) and William G. Brooks, III
The Innocence Network honored two innovative police chiefs last week at the annual Innocence Network Conference held in Charlotte, North Carolina, for their work to reform the criminal justice system to prevent wrongful convictions: William G. Brooks, III, Chief of the Norwood, Massachusetts Police Department, and Darrel Stephens, former Chief of the Charlotte Police Department.
The Innocence Network presented Chief Brooks with the 2012 "Champion of Justice" award. The award is given to public servants who go above and beyond in their efforts to free the wrongly convicted or reform the criminal justice system to prevent wrongful convictions. Previous honorees include Jim Petro, former Ohio Attorney General, and Jim Trainum, retired detective with the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department.
During his acceptance speech, Chief Brooks reflected on the openness of most of the law enforcement officers towards reforms to prevent wrongful convictions:
"Not a single police officer has approached me following our presentations [on eyewitness identification] to say that he disagrees with what we have said. Without exception, we hear police officers tell us that they favor these reforms."
Chief Brooks has been a police academy instructor for over 25 years and an educator on police lineup reforms for five years. In that time, he has partnered with Innocence Network members to train law enforcement personnel about scientifically supported best practices and to instruct thousands of officers nationwide about the importance of implementing criminal justice reforms to prevent wrongful convictions. Chief Brooks' work in Connecticut and Michigan contributed to statewide adoption of eyewitness identification best practices in both states. In his home state, he sits on the Supreme Judicial Court's Police Practice Committee, which is set to issue recommendations in the coming months. Chief Brooks concluded his remarks by saying, "I am honored to receive this award, and you have humbled me with it."
The Innocence Network also selected Darrel Stephens, former Police Chief of the Charlotte Police Department, to deliver the keynote address. As police chief, Stephens implemented reforms that are proven to decrease mistaken eyewitness identifications. He also helped implement these reforms statewide, putting North Carolina at the forefront of a national trend in reforms to eyewitness identification procedures to prevent wrongful convictions. Stephens currently serves as the Executive Director of the Major City Chiefs Association and a Board Member of the Innocence Project.
During his keynote, Stephens spoke about police agencies across the country implementing reforms to help prevent wrongful convictions:
"There are hundreds of police departments that have or are taking the steps...to minimize the potential for wrongful convictions. New York City announced last year that it would begin videotaping interrogations. Laws in 18 states and the District of Columbia require it. More police agencies are adopting best practices in eyewitness identification and improvements are being made in forensics. And both police and prosecutors are increasing their participation in wrongful conviction cases."
Learn more about the Innocence Network.
Read a Q and A with Darrel Stephens on page 15 of this issue of The Innocence Project In Print.
A New York man who spent more than two decades behind bars for a murder he did not commit, describes the effects of prison and the struggle to adapt to the modern world two months after his release in an interview with the New York Post. David Ranta was convicted of killing a beloved Brooklyn Rabbi in a foiled 1990 robbery and was cleared in March.
Out of prison for just one day, Ranta's celebration of freedom came to a halt when he suffered a heart attack.
Today, Ranta says he is doing much better and will file a lawsuit against the city claiming malicious prosecution and wrongful imprisonment. He is looking toward the future.
Despite calls for DNA testing that could prove his innocence, Willie Manning has been given an execution date of Tuesday, May 7, by the state of Mississippi. On Thursday, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that there is "overwhelming evidence of guilt," so no DNA testing is needed in his case. In a motion filed on Friday, Manning's attorneys said that the Supreme Court should not allow his execution to proceed "without taking all reasonable steps available to ensure the accuracy of the conviction."
Manning was convicted of the abduction and murder of Jon Steckler and Tiffany Miller in 1992 on mostly circumstantial evidence, including the testimony of a jailhouse informant who had previously given a statement implicating another person. No physical evidence has ever linked him to the crime, and he has consistently maintained his innocence. He has been seeking post-conviction DNA testing for years, insisting that technological strides made in the past 20 years could prove him innocent of the crime.
The Associated Press reports:
DNA testing can provide definitive proof of guilt or innocence. As the dissenters on the Mississippi Supreme Court noted, it could also identify the person responsible for the crime. Testing in this case will provide surety that Mississippi is not committing a travesty of justice by executing an innocent man.
Please take action and ask the Governor of Mississippi to stay the execution of Willie Manning and order DNA testing of the evidence in his case.
Read the AP story.
Attorneys and students with the California Innocence Project were joined by former clients, activists and family members in San Diego on Saturday as they kicked off a two month, 600 mile march to the state capitol in Sacramento on behalf of the organizations' wrongfully imprisoned clients, reported CBS8 in San Diego.
Once in Sacramento, the group will ask the governor to use his executive clemency power to free twelve clients who they believe are innocent.
California exonerees Ken Marsh and Brian Banks will be joining parts of the march in the coming weeks. Banks made headlines earlier this month when he became the first exoneree to sign a professional contract with the NFL.
Read the full article and watch coverage from CBS8 San Diego.
Watch more about the California Innocence Project 600 Mile March.
Researchers discuss cognitive bias in forensic examiners, officials question blood-alcohol testing in Arizona, and the New York State Inspector General has recently launched an investigation into the use of an unaccredited lab. Here is the round up of news for the week:
Researchers from the United States and England collaborated on a new study that examines how cognitive biases can lead to false convictions. Specifically, forensic examiners may be influenced by information that decreases their objectivity and impacts their conclusions.
The acquittal of an Arizona defendant on DUI charges has lead to increased demand for a review of other cases that might have been affected by faulty blood-alcohol equipment. While the crime lab released a statement claiming their accreditation requires proper maintenance and calibration of all equipment, defense lawyers have found a software glitch in the equipment that has affected the results of multiple cases.
The New York State Inspector General has launched an investigation into a Syracuse police officer's use of an unaccredited lab. The investigation was sparked when the Onondaga County District Attorney notified the state Commission on Forensic Science.
In an unrelated investigation, the New York State Inspector General found that the Onondaga County Center for Forensic Sciences was not negligent, nor showed bias in how it handled cases as the Syracuse police deputy chief had claimed. Rather, the Inspector General found that the police department had problems with its communication and recommended training.
By Gillian Gonda
Program Officer at the Fetzer Institute
(Originally posted on the Fetzer Institute website)
I am sitting among some of the most resilient, compassionate, and caring individuals I may ever meet. It's a windy Friday morning in Charlotte, North Carolina. I am in a large hotel ballroom. The lights dim and the names are read:
Audrey Edmunds, Waunakee, Wisconsin. Released February 6, 2008; 11 years served.
Henry James, New Orleans, Louisiana. Released October 21, 2012; 30 years served.
Sedrick Courtney, Tulsa, Oklahoma. Released July 19, 2012; 16 years served.
Each name is accompanied by a picture, and for those newly released, a brief video. Damon Thibodeaux, released on September 28, 2012 after 16 years served said, "the minute you give up, you die." Damon made his way to the stage to thunderous applause, high fives, and tears. He joined 100+ peers and friends, a unique group of men and women, the only ones who can truly understand Damon's struggles, pain, and joy. They understand because they too are innocent of the heinous crimes they were accused of and then committed to prison for, many with life sentences, some to death row. What brought them to this celebratory stage in Charlotte are the efforts of the Innocence Network, an association of projects from around the country whose attorneys, advocates and students work tirelessly to overturn wrongful convictions. Many verdicts-more than 300 since 1989-have been overturned due to DNA testing, 700 more due to new evidence, witnesses or other reasons.
Once a year the exonerees and their families come together with their attorneys and advocates, students, social workers, and a cadre of other innocence supporters at the Innocence Network Annual Conference. They share in the joy of their exonerations and support one another in the challenges of their release. Attorneys and advocates learn the latest trends in DNA testing, ethics in witness examinations, compensation statutes, among numerous other topics.
This year, Fetzer advisor Richard Gershon and I attended to experience this extraordinary event first hand. With the support of the Institute, the Innocence Network was able to provide additional programs for exonerees, including workshops on storytelling from The Moth, mindfulness and movement from Suzanne Jones of YogaHope, meditation techniques from James Gordon of the Center for Mind Body Medicine, and forgiveness training from Dr. Everett Worthington of Virginia Commonwealth University. Our partners at the Innocence Project in New York told us that the support system for exonerees is essential, but often challenged by limited (if any) compensation, family support and/or social services. For many, the annual conference offers a respite from challenges at home and a chance to reconnect, reenergize and rejoice.
Over the two-day conference, I encountered resilience beyond reason. It was akin to peeking in on a large family reunion. Humor and talent intact, the attendees peppered the conference with laughter, conversation and celebration. New exonerees were especially appreciated; the love was palpable. Lawyers and students and advocates, so many who work pro-bono and donate their lives to these cases, are buoyed by the spirit of their former clients-and are adored and appreciated at every introduction: "This person here is the smartest attorney on this earth...she saved my life!"
This is by no means a typical conference; it's heavy, intense. But it's the Saturday night jam that has become one of the most popular events of the conference. First on the stage is the Exoneree Band with Antione Day on drums and Raymond Towler on guitar. They conduct an evening full of music, storytelling, and poetry. It's cathartic and, for me, I see a truly compassionate community, one that looks for healing with each conversation, turn at the mic and workshop presentation. I am privileged to be here, to witness generosity and healing at work and the struggle of being free after being imprisoned unjustly for so long. You, too, can bear witness by listening this year to WUNC (starting with today's broadcast of The State of Things at noon and 9 pm), and by keeping an ear out for Innocence Project exoneree stories on The Story. We'll point to them when they are posted online, and in the meantime, let's contemplate our role as a society when it comes to seeking forgiveness and expressing compassion when we fail our fellow citizens. There's work to do!
The Fetzer Institute works to foster awareness of the power that love and forgiveness can have in our world.
By Josie Cardoso-Rojo
Cardozo Law School Clinic Student
Photo: Randy Arledge and Josie Cardoso-Rojo
On May 5, I'll be joining the Innocence Project Team in the TD Five Boro Bike Tour in New York City. I'll be riding 42 miles covering each of the five boroughs-starting in Manhattan and ending in Staten Island-with Innocence Project staff members and supporters. We each have our own inspiration for wanting to raise funds for the organization. Randy Arledge is my inspiration.
When I began interning at the Innocence Project in June 2012 as a Cardozo Law School student, I was assigned Randolph "Randy" Arledge's case along with four other cases. Randy was convicted of the 1981 murder of a young girl in Corsicana, Texas, based almost entirely on jailhouse informant testimony. Despite the fact that there was no physical evidence tying Randy to the crime scene, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
My supervising attorney informed me that we had a CODIS "hit" from a hairnet found in the victim's car. Since the hairnet belonged to a convicted felon, I figured the case would soon be resolved, and Randy would be released. However, we still had to convince the prosecutors of Randy's innocence.
For the next couple of months, Randy and I spoke on the phone frequently. I tried to keep his hopes up, but it was Randy that kept me from losing faith. I couldn't fathom how someone in his condition wasn't bitter. We spoke several times a week, and he would thank me every single time. "Thank me for what?" I thought to myself. Every time I had to say, "I have no news for you," a little part of me secretly gave up hope.
In August, we submitted an open records' request for the perpetrator's criminal record. As it turns out, he had previously committed a crime nearly identical to the crime in Randy's case. I wanted to get excited, but I didn't want to hear "well, what does this really mean?"
From that moment, things started moving fairly quickly. The co-defendant recanted his testimony, and the district attorney agreed to work with us in order to exonerate Randy on the basis of actual innocence. I was truly happy for Randy, but we both knew the process could take several more months.
Upon returning from winter break, there were discussions about Randy's exoneration. All the back-and-forth with the district attorney kept me grounded. I knew Randy was going to get out eventually, but I didn't think that I would be around to see it happen.
Then, out of the blue, the paralegal approached me and asked, "You know you'll be going to Texas for the exoneration, right?" I couldn't believe it! I was going to be there the day my client was declared an innocent man. Randy was cleared and released on February 11th, two days before my birthday. Needless to say, that was the best birthday gift anyone could've ever given me.
Randy's been out almost three months now, but we still talk and text on a regular basis. He's experiencing everything for the first time, and I'm blessed to be able to share these moments with him. This week, Randy will remarry his ex-wife and the mother of his children. Although the two were estranged during his many years of false imprisonment, they have reestablished their close relationship since his release.
As I ride through the Five Boro Bike Tour, I'll think of Randy cheering me on. He was forced to sacrifice 32 years of his life for a crime he didn't commit, and yet he NEVER lost hope. These miles are for Randy - for every year he was in jail, for every blessing he sent my way and for every moment he has yet to experience!
Learn more about Randy's case.
Click here to support me in the TD Five Boro Bike Tour.
The Innocence Project will host its seventh-annual benefit, "A Celebration of Freedom and Justice," at the Grand Hyatt New York on April 30. The program, which features more than a dozen exonerees, kicks off with special remarks by Whoopie Goldberg and includes a performance by Broadway star Norm Lewis.
The evening will feature tributes to this year's honorees: Tony Goldwyn, actor, director, and producer, who is currently starring in the ABC series Scandal and directed Conviction; Jack Taylor, Managing Director and Global Head of Prudential Real Estate Investors and founding member of the Innocence Project Board of Directors; and Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP, which has generously supported the organization's policy reform agenda.
For additional information on the event and to purchase tickets, please contact Kristin Pulkkinen at the Innocence Project at 212.364.5355 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please click here if you are unable to attend but would like to make an online donation.