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Nearly one year after kidnapping and rape charges against a former Southern California high school football player were dismissed, Brian Banks' dreams to play professional football were fulfilled Wednesday when he inked a deal with the Atlanta Falcons.
The alleged victim claimed that she had been forced to the school's basement and raped without a condom, but DNA testing did not find sperm on her underwear. Banks was exonerated after the alleged victim was video recorded denying that any crime had taken place.
As a collegiate prospect with a verbal commitment to play at the University of Southern California, Banks was forced to set aside his dreams in 2002 when he took a plea deal to avoid trial and the risk of a lengthy prison sentence. After a five-year stint in prison he was forced to register as a sex offender and wear an electronic monitoring bracelet.
Following his release last May, Banks, who was represented by the California Innocence Project, received calls from several professional football teams and was invited for workouts and tryouts.
Watch Banks and California Innocence Project Director Justin Brooks talk more about Banks' story and what it means to go pro on MSNBC's Politics Now.
The troubled Hinton State Crime Lab in Massachusetts fares poorly in a recent inspection, Ohio fires the same criminalist twice, and New York City police are turning to social media platforms to solve crimes. Here is this week's roundup of news:
Massachusetts' state investigators working for the Inspector General found several scattered drug samples during a recent inspection of the shuttered Hinton State Crime Lab. As a result of the inspection, investigators are now questioning many of the 190,000 cases processed, and not just the ones completed by Annie Dookhan, a chemist indicted for falsifying drug evidence.
After being fired last May and then reinstated in October, Michael Short, a criminalist at the Canton-Stark County Crime Lab in Ohio, was recently fired again for the second time when additional accusations of falsifying lab reports and insubordination were raised. Short's attorney says the claims have no basis since the "crime lab is in utter disarray."
Ken Martin, a Massachusetts state police lieutenant who ran crime scene analysis for the state crime lab, has been removed from his post after it was discovered he acted as a consultant for the defense on a case. Prosecutors might review Martin's role in the defense's case and possibly call him as a witness for the prosecution.
New York City police are using facial recognition technology to develop investigative leads from matching photographs from surveillance footage, mug shots, and social media platforms. The facial recognition technology is not without error, and matching photographs without other evidence does not allow police to directly make an arrest.
Researchers from the University of Virginia School of Medicine and Sam Houston State University found that forensic psychologists and psychiatrists are not always impartial and can provide expert opinions that favor those who hire them. Researchers discuss how the adversarial nature of the justice system could reduce objectivity in experts and lead to a bias referred to as the allegiance effect.
Louis Taylor, wrongfully convicted of setting a 1970 Arizona fire that claimed the lives of 29 people, was finally released this week after 42 years in prison on a no-contest plea. The Pioneer International Hotel fire is the worst in Arizona's history, though arson experts now believe that it wasn't intentionally set.
The New York Times reports on Taylor's release:
Taylor is represented by the Arizona Justice Project. Additionally troubling is the racial bias that contributed to his wrongful conviction. Taylor was found guilty-and narrowly escaped the death penalty-by an all-white jury. One of the fire investigators who testified at his original trial offered a profile of the perpetrator as a young black man.
Despite the new scientific evidence challenging the finding of arson, prosecutorial misconduct, and other evidence of Taylor's innocence, he has not been exonerated. Instead, he was forced to accept a no-contest plea in order to be released. The plea allows him to continue maintaining his innocence but the plea will almost certainly bar him from seeking civil remedies. Arizona is one of 23 states that does not provide exoneree compensation.
In another recent case, Ed Graf, of Texas, will receive a new trial based on doubts about the arson evidence that led to his 1986 murder conviction. Graf's case was identified by the Innocence Project of Texas in response to a review of old arson cases that arose out of a multiple year investigation by the Texas Forensic Science Commission.
Read the full article.
Read the Innocence Project's press release about the case.
A new ProPublica special report that analyzed more than a decade's worth of state and federal court rulings found more than two dozen instances in which New York judges explicitly concluded there had been prosecutorial misconduct. And in nearly every instance, despite convictions being overturned, appellate court disciplinary committees never took action against the prosecutors for their costly errors.
The investigation uncovered only one prosecutor, former Queens assistant district attorney Claude Stuart, who was disciplined for his actions and eventually lost his job after several abuses including withholding evidence from the defense, manipulating evidence and lying to a trial judge. In two of those cases the convictions were overturned.
New York City's district attorneys disagree and call these errors limited in scope. But in response to those isolated instances, some have gone a step further by establishing internal units that examine claims of abuse. But as long as the abuse goes unchecked, academics and defense lawyers say prosecutors will continue doing what they're doing.
The obligation to disclose potentially important evidence to defense lawyers has long been a vital part of the criminal justice system, yet the new analysis showed that violations involving withholding evidence were the most common form of serious misconduct by city prosecutors.
The New York State Bar Association has recently taken on the issue of how to define prosecutorial misconduct and what should be done about it as part of a larger initiative to address wrongful convictions. And while state legislators have introduced several bills incorporating the bar association's ideas, none have gained much traction. The state's District Attorneys Association has outright opposed them, and other city district attorneys have said they could adversely affect public safety and are unnecessary in light of their own efforts to improve training and oversight.
Join ProPublica's live chat Thursday at noon EST to discuss its latest investigation into prosecutorial misconduct. You can tweet questions with #PolicingProsecutors.
Read the full article.
For more background on this issue, download the Northern California Innocence Project report on prosecutorial misconduct.
You can also read the Innocence Project's report: Court Findings of Prosecutorial Misconduct Claims in Post-Conviction Appeals and Civil Suits Among the First 255 DNA Exoneration Cases
Eric Wilson, one of four Navy sailors who was wrongfully convicted of a 1997 Norfolk, Virginia, rape and murder based almost exclusively own false confessions was released years ago, but he is still fighting to clear his name.
Wilson's three co-defendants in the "Norfolk Four" case were released in 2009 when the Governor granted conditional pardons based on serious questions about their guilt. DNA tests have pointed to the involvement of another man, who had no prior acquaintance with the four men and says that he committed the crime alone. Wilson, however, gained nothing from the pardons. He was already out on parole with a standing rape conviction and forced to register as a sex offender.
Wilson is ineligible for jobs on many government sites and is prevented from applying for a passport, adopting his young stepson, or attending any of his school functions. Although a divided three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in Richmond, Virginia, recently said that it's too late to review his case since he is no longer in custody, Wilson is now requesting a hearing before the Supreme Court on his challenge to his conviction, reported The New York Times.
When Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli didn't file a response, the Supreme Court instructed him last week to file a brief by April 25.
Read the full article.
Sunday night's episode of CBS' 60 Minutes featured a segment on Louis Taylor, a man who was wrongfully convicted of setting the 1970 Pioneer Hotel fire in Tucson, Arizona which took the lives of 29 people.
Taylor, who is represented by the Arizona Justice Project, has maintained his innocence for more than 40 years. On the night of the fire, 16-year-old Taylor arrived at the hotel to attend a Christmas party. He was arrested shortly after by police who claimed he had set the fire as a distraction so he could burglarize hotel rooms.
The fire science that was used by investigators in 1970 that led them to label the fire as arson has changed significantly. The Arizona Justice Project continues to focus on the flawed fire science at the heart of the case. In the episode, fire science expert John Lentini explains the limitations of fire investigation to 60 Minutes.
Watch the full episode.
A BBC article on the problems of using informants focuses on US practice, but has implications for other countries. This includes Singapore, where those who are facing drug trafficking charges can escape the death penalty by providing police with information.
Phil Locke, science and technology advisor to the Ohio Innocence Project and Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic, blogs about the phenomenon of "trial by website" in the Amanda Knox case.
The Innocence Network UK held their spring conference on March 22 in London. Scientific and legal experts gave presentations on innocence-related topics while representatives from Innocence Projects from around the UK gave updates on their cases.
Miscarriages of Justice UK launched a website to highlight wrongful convictions in the United Kingdom.
By Audrey Levitin, Director of Development and External Affairs
In Jewish tradition, the holiday of Passover retells the story of the Jewish people's exodus to freedom after bondage. The holiday calls us to reflect on ideas that are closely aligned with the spirit of our work at the Innocence Project. In many ways, each exoneration is a modern story of redemption.
Since 1989, 305 innocent people have walked out of prison as a result of post-conviction DNA testing. With their families reunited and their names cleared, hundreds of people have had the chance to move forward and rebuild their lives. Like the Israelites during their journey to freedom, the exonerees have experienced profound injustice, followed by a series of unpredictable and miraculous events, and ultimately liberation.
Recently, three exonerees spoke to us here at the Innocence Project. Their testimony inspires our staff, our clinic students and supporters to continue our efforts on behalf of others who have been wrongfully convicted. Each of their stories is unique-but without fail, the exonerees move us with their courage, tenacity and generosity of spirit.
As we remember during Passover, freedom from bondage brings new challenges: the exodus from Egypt was followed by decades of hardship in the desert. The stories of the DNA exonerees also reflect the challenges of meeting freedom's demands once it has been attained. Thankfully, the support of our generous donors allows us to aid the exonerated during what is often a difficult transition to freedom.
The incarceration and exoneration of an innocent person and the new challenges that freedom can bring are doubly meaningful to me. They represent a model for spiritual engagement-and an urgent call-to-action for all of us to transform the system that leads to such injustice, so that other innocent people can be freed.
The Baltimore Police Department will soon implement identification reforms in an effort to avoid cases of mistaken identity according to the city's police commissioner Anthony Batts. At a panel discussion at the University of Baltimore Law School, Batts cited research that shows current techniques can lead to mistakes. Baltimore joins a host of other jurisdictions, including Denver and Dallas, where law enforcement has voluntarily adopted thees reforms.
Planned reforms include showing witnesses photos one at a time, as opposed to the traditional lineup, which presents a handful of photos at once. Innocence Project Director of State Policy Reform Rebecca Brown discussed how presenting pictures sequentially rather than simultaneously decreases the rate at which innocent people are identified. Research demonstrates that when viewing several subjects at once, witnesses tend to choose the person who looks the most like - but may not actually be - the perpetrator.
State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein, who participated in the panel, spoke about the importance of getting a correct identification since eyewitness testimony is often the most powerful element at trial. The Baltimore Sun reports:
By Edwin Grimsley, Case Analyst*
A jailhouse informant recants, an exonerated death row inmate wins a judgment against his prosecutors and new evidence could lead to possible exoneration in a shaken baby syndrome case in Illinois. Those stories and more in this week's Innocence Network Week in Review:
In another encouraging development for North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence client Joseph Sledge, one of two jailhouse informants who testified against him has recanted, saying that he lied to collect reward money and was fed details of the crime by investigators. In December of last year, DNA testing showed that hairs from the crime scene that were used to convict Sledge of two 1976 murders did not belong to him.
Illinois Innocence Project client Anthony Murray, who was freed from prison last year after taking an Alford plea, spoke out for the first time about his wrongful imprisonment. Murray had been through two previous trials, both of which resulted in convictions that were later overturned, and took the plea to avoid the ordeal of a third trial.
The Duke Chronicle ran a feature story this week about LaMonte Armstrong, a client of the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic who was exonerated after serving 17 years of a life sentence for a murder he didn't commit.
Innocence Project of Texas client Ed Graf has won a new trial after the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals found that conclusions of forensic scientists who testified in his trial were based not on science, but "old wives' tales." Graf was convicted of arson and murder in the fire death of his two stepsons.
Nearly nine years after being released from prison, Center on Wrongful Convictions client Gordon "Randy" Steidl has won a second judgment in a long-running wrongful conviction and malicious prosecution case against the State's Attorney and police. Steidl was sentenced to death for a 1986 double murder and served 17 years before being exonerated in 2004.
The attorney for Jennifer Del Prete, a day care worker convicted of murdering a child in her care in a shaken baby syndrome case, has filed a motion to overturn her conviction based on evidence uncovered and published by the Medill Justice Project.
California Innocence Project client Brian Banks, who was exonerated after the woman he was convicted of raping confessed she had made up her story, was featured on 60 Minutes this week. The story covered Banks' struggle to get his life back and his ongoing efforts to play for the NFL.
The recent high-profile exoneration of David Ranta in Brooklyn has brought attention to other national coverage of wrongful convictions. A new ProPublica article highlights the best reporting on these cases, including coverage of several Innocence Project cases. Dating back as early as 1990 up until this month, the ProPublica piece hails more than a dozen stories on subjects ranging from case flaws, DNA evidence and life after exoneration.
Among the highlights are The Washington Post for its coverage of Damon Thibodeaux, The New Yorker for its coverage of Cameron Todd Willingham and Texas Monthly for its coverage of Michael Morton.
Read the full article for the rest.
Texas courts consider cases that may have been tainted by fabricated lab results, an automated DNA processing system reduces case backlogs in Ohio, and a Texas man convicted of arson will get a new trial based on new scientific evidence. Here's this week's round up of forensic news:
In Texas, the Court of Criminal Appeals is hearing cases in which a former Houston Department of Public Safety crime lab worker may have fabricated drug testing results. With over 30 counties affected by these tests, prosecutors are determining the best way to proceed. Numerous cases have already been dismissed.
The authors of Math on Trial: How Numbers Get Used and Abused in the Courtroom discuss the importance of accurately presenting data in court in a recent Huffington Post blog. Even in DNA identification, prosecutors and defense attorneys alike can easily misinterpret and misrepresent match probabilities.
An overturned California murder conviction based on faulty bite mark analysis raises questions about how many prior convictions are based on outdated forensic disciplines or methods. Such questions underscore the need to develop a stronger scientific foundation within forensics.
A new automated DNA analysis system has allowed an Ohio crime lab to greatly reduce a biological evidence backlog from six months to around four weeks. The new system can process evidence overnight and can repeat the extraction and testing process of DNA evidence without human intervention.
Ed Graf of Texas will get a new trial 25 years after his conviction of killing his two stepsons in a fire. Graf's case was one of several flagged by the Texas State Fire Marshal and the Innocence Project of Texas for outdated arson evidence.
From left to right, Mike Helton, Prentice Harvey, Mike Shea, Linda Smith, Jimmer Dudley, Tim Arnold, Damon Preston, Ed Monahan, Representative Johnny Bell. Not pictured: Senator John Schickel, who was also instrumental in the passage of the initiative.
Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear signed a bill Monday that will vastly expand the right of a convicted person to use DNA testing to prove their innocence. Post-conviction DNA testing in Kentucky had previously been limited to those convicted of a capital crime.
HB 41, which was sponsored by Representative Johnny Bell (D-Glasgow), passed unanimously in the Kentucky House and the Senate earlier this month. Prior to the bill's passage, wrongly convicted Kentuckians in non-capital cases were forced to rely on judges and prosecutors to grant access to DNA testing, meaning testing was often granted in an inconsistent manner.
Read an Innocence Project press release about the law.
Find out about your state's DNA access law.
The high-profile exoneration of David Ranta of Brooklyn, last week, has brought new recognition to the Brooklyn District Attorney's Conviction Integrity Unit, which helped secure his release after 23 years.
A recent column in the New York Daily News examines the unit, which was created by Brooklyn DA Charles Joe Hynes and is run by former prosecutor John O'Mara, and revisits its beginnings.
O'Mara was overwhelmed by the response, and he uncovered many cases worthy of reinvestigation, including 14 rape and murder cases from the Innocence Project that involve testing or retesting DNA. Inundated with cases, he brought on a former NYPD cold-case detective, Brooklyn DA Investigator Pat Lanagan. And last year, the team added deputy Taylor Koss who works the field with Lanagan.
Though few, Conviction Integrity Units are springing up across the nation. Among the most celebrated and accomplished is the Dallas County District Attorney's unit, created in 2007, which has helped uncover injustice in a number of cases.
Read the full article.
Read more about the Dallas County Unit.
Watch death row DNA exoneree Kirk Bloodsworth and Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck discuss the danger of executing an innocent person on MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry show. Bloodsworth, the first person to be proven innocent through DNA testing who had served time on death row, speaks of his fight to repeal the death penalty in his home state of Maryland. Scheck weighs in on the type of systemic errors that might cause an innocent person to be sentenced to death.
Maryland voted to repeal the death penalty on March 15, making it the sixth state in six years to do so. Delaware is currently considering passing a similar bill.
Watch the segment.
If you live in Delaware, ask your Senator to vote yes on the death penalty repeal, using our action center.
Read about the Innocence Project's position on the death penalty.
California Innocence Project Director Justin Brooks with exoneree Brian Banks.
Sunday, March 24 at 7:00 p.m. California Innocence Project client Brian Banks will appear on CBS' 60 Minutes to talk about his experience of wrongful conviction and how it derailed his future as an NFL hopeful. Banks spent five years in prison and another five as a registered sex offender after being wrongfully convicted of raping a classmate who eventually admitted that she made up the story.
Banks recorded their conversations and took the evidence to the California Innocence Project. Director Justin Brooks presented prosecutors with the project's findings, and they agreed the case should be dismissed.
For more about the segment.
Read more about the Banks case.
By a vote of 52 - 22, the New Jersey Assembly passed a bill yesterday that would increase compensation for the wrongfully convicted in the Garden State from $20,000 to the federal level of $50,000 per year of wrongful incarceration, with annual adjustments based on the Consumer Price Index. The bill will also add clarifying language to ensure that those who falsely confess or plead guilty to avoid a harsher sentence and are later exonerated are not excluded from receiving compensation.
The bill was passed earlier by the New Jersey Senate, so now goes to Governor Chris Christie.
If you live in New Jersey, send an email to Governor Christie, asking him to sign the bill.
Read about compensation laws in your state.
The Texas State Fire Marshal's Office and the Innocence Project of Texas will begin reviewing questionable arson convictions next month. The review is part of a national movement scrutinizing arson cases to ensure that they're based on credible, scientific evidence. The Texas case of Cameron Todd Willingham-who was executed in 2004 based on unscientific, outdated arson analysis-raised concerns across the country about the integrity of other arson convictions.
State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy spoke with the Associated Press about the review:
One of the cases to be reviewed is that of Ed Graf, convicted of setting a 1988 fire that killed his two stepsons. Graf claims innocence, and fire experts have questioned the arson analysis in his case. Convictions around or before 1992 are particularly suspect since that was the year that the National Fire Protection Association issued is first set of guidelines. Prior to 1992, no consistent methodology was used to analyze fires and analysts were often retired firefighters with no scientific background.
Read the full article.
Read about other disputed arson cases.