When Lake County, Illinois, State's Attorney Mike Nerheim ran for office in 2012, he promised to stop the pattern of wrongful convictions and police and prosecutorial misconduct that had plagued the county for years. One year in, former critics say that Nerheim has fundamentally changed the way his office deals with innocence claims.
In a joint effort with the Justice Department and the Innocence Project, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) is urging police departments to change the way they conduct investigations in order to prevent wrongful convictions. This marks a milestone in the engagement by police and prosecutors in correcting wrongful convictions - a trend which is also reflected by the Registry's finding that in 2012, for the first time, law enforcement cooperated
in a majority of exonerations. The IACP report
includes 30 recommendations covering issues from arrest to review of post-conviction claims of innocence.
Maria Mendez - a mother of ten with several grandchildren - has spent nearly seven years incarcerated for the murder of her infant grandson in Los Angeles. Prosecutors argued that the boy was killed by "Shaken Baby Syndrome" when Mendez violently shook him to make him stop crying - which Mendez and her family deny. Many experts believe that Shaken Baby Syndrome is based on faulty science, and that the amount of force needed to cause brain trauma by shaking would also damage the child's neck. Mendez is currently represented by Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor and current director of Loyola University's Project for the Innocent.
Alabama's parole board granted posthumous pardons on November 21, 2013 to three of the "Scottsboro Boys." The Scottsboro Boys were a group of nine African-American teenagers falsely convicted of raping two white women on a train in Alabama in the 1930s. The case came to symbolize racial injustice in the Deep South during that era, and led to two landmark Supreme Court cases: Powell v. Alabama
and Norris v. Alabama
. Five of the Scottsboro Boys were exonerated in 1937 when one of the supposed victims recanted. A sixth was pardoned before his death in 1976.
On November 18, three women were released in Bexar County, Texas, after the prosecutor agreed that evidence of child sexual abuse at their 1994 trials should be reviewed under new scientific standards. The women and a fourth co-Defendant were convicted during an epidemic of child sex abuse hysteria that swept the nation. See the 2012 Report
by the Registry. One of the two alleged victims recanted her accusations; this occurs in approximately 67% of the hysteria
exonerations. The case goes to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The prosecutor said that she will drop the case if a new trial is ordered. The prosecutor's cooperation in this unfolding exoneration reflects a national trend, according to the Registry's 2012 update
In most known exonerations, the wrong person was convicted of a crime that did occur. In a rapidly growing minority, however, the defendant was convicted of a crime that never happened – such as the recent exoneration of Jacob Trakhtenberg
. No-Crime cases are now 22% of the exonerations listed on the Registry, including 38% of the cases added since our first Report
On November 8, former prosecutor Ken Anderson, who resigned as a Texas Circuit Court Judge in September, was sentenced to 10 days in jail for his role as prosecutor in the wrongful conviction of Michael Morton
, who spent 25 years in prison and was exonerated in 2011. Anderson, who was also disbarred and must perform 500 hours of community service, pled no contest to contempt of court for telling a judge in 1987 that there was no exculpatory evidence in his possession despite knowing about several key witness statements that he never disclosed. This marks the first time a prosecutor has been jailed for failing to turn over exculpatory evidence as required by law. Anderson served 3 days of his 10 day sentence and was released on November 15, 2013.
In a thoughtful op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times, Rob Warden, co-founder of the Registry, argues that courts should not try to determine if a witness recantation is true, but rather whether it undermines confidence in the original verdict. Warden reviews the case of Gary Dotson
, the first DNA exoneree in the U.S., who would have been freed four years before he was if a recanting witness had been believed. The Registry is conducting a study on witness recantations, and released preliminary results
Sundhe Moses, who spent 18 years in prison for murder, was granted parole in New York on October 31 after presenting new evidence of innocence. Moses was convicted based on an investigation by Louis Scarcella
, 50 of whose cases are under investigation after evidence of corrupt practices led to the exoneration of David Ranta
. The assistant district attorney who prosecuted Moses opposed granting him parole, in part because Moses admitted guilt at a prior parole hearing and because the case is currently under review by the Brooklyn DA's Conviction Integrity Unit.
In August 2013, the Illinois legislature passed a law requiring interrogations to be recorded in investigations of certain violent felonies in addition to homicides. There are 45 Illinois cases
in the Registry which resulted from a false confession, including the case of Juan Rivera
(pictured). Recording interrogations protects suspects from illegal police tactics and police officers from false claims of brutality, but some departments are concerned about the monetary costs of recording interrogations.