Newly-elected Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has created a Conviction Integrity Unit to investigate claims of innocence from defendants who contend they were wrongly convicted. The unit is part of a growing trend by prosecutors to respond to innocence claims, and to help prevent false convictions in the future. Similar units have been established in numerous jurisdictions, including Dallas County, Texas; Santa Clara County, California; Baltimore City, Maryland; Cook County, Illinois; Manhattan and Brooklyn. The Philadelphia unit will receive innocence cases from the Pennsylvania Innocence Project at Temple Law School.
J.E. "Chip" Harding, Sheriff of Virginia's Albemarle County, who helped clear Michael Hash, wrongfully convicted of a 1996 capital murder in Culpeper, has written to 123 sheriffs and 247 police chiefs across Virginia about creating a justice commission to review research and recommend changes. Harding told the Richmond Times Dispatch that improving the quality and accuracy of investigations would not only decrease the possibility of convicting the innocent, but also strengthen cases against the guilty and improve public safety.
Since 2007, district attorneys in several large counties across the United States have formed Conviction Integrity Units to correct as well as prevent wrongful convictions. But are these internal prosecutorial offices an effective way to identify and exonerate innocent defendants? Hella Winston, a Senior Fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, writes about this issue in The Crime Report, focusing on Brooklyn's recently elected District Attorney Ken Thompson (left) who on March 27, 2014, dismissed the appeal of a judge's decision exonerating William Lopez.
In Oklahoma, the Innocence Project is seeking DNA testing in Tulsa in the case of Michelle Dawn Murphy, who was convicted more than 20 years ago of killing her 15-month old son. In Rhode Island, the New England Innocence Project says DNA tests show that Raymond D. “Beaver” Tempest Jr., was wrongly convicted of murder in 1982. And in Japan, a man imprisoned for 48 years, 45 of them on Death Row, has been released and may be exonerated by DNA. The Registry reported in February (p. 14) that the number of DNA exonerations has been slowly declining in recent years, and that those that occurr are increasingly murder convictions from decades ago - like these three cases.
Over the last three decades, Centurion Ministries, a non-profit organization founded in 1983, has investigated and exonerated falsely convicted defendants in the U.S. and Canada. Headed by founder Jim McCloskey and co-manager Kate Germond, Centurion has helped free dozens of innocent men and women. Forty-one of their clients are in the Registry, including five innocent people who were exonerated of two murders in New York in 2012 and 2013.
On Wednesday, March 12, presiding judge Paul Biebel of the Cook County, Illinois criminal division, appointed the dean of Loyola University Chicago School of Law to identify defendants who are still in prison after confessing to crimes under torture by disgraced former Chicago police Cmdr. Jon Burge (pictured) or his subordinates. Defense lawyers said the move was "long overdue." The Registry includes 10 men, the most recent being Stanley Wrice, who were wrongfully convicted based on false confessions coerced by Burge or his detectives. (Chicago Tribune photography by E. Jason Wambsgans)
On March 5, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that defendants who were convicted based on testing by disgraced crime lab analyst Annie Dookhan can challenge their convictions are entitled to a presumption that there was "egregious" misconduct by the state - one of the standards for overturning a guilty plea. Dookhan was sentenced to prison last year after pleading guilty to various charges including evidence tampering. As many as 40,000 cases may be affected. Nearly 300 exonerations in the Registry involved false or misleading forensic evidence.
In February 2004, Cameron Willingham was executed in Texas for killing his three children by deliberately burning down his home. When reinvestigation revealed that the forensic evidence of arson was based on invalid science, the prosecution responded that Willingham was clearly guilty because he said so to a jailhouse informant. Now, a document recently discovered by the Innocence Project reveals that the informant was given a deal that reduced the charge against him in return for testimony against Willingham - a deal the informant and the prosecutor explicitly denied at trial. Willingham's case is similar to that of exoneree David Gavitt, who was convicted of the arson muder of his wife and two daughters in Michigan in 1986, and exonerated in 2012.
Reintegrating into society after a long prison term is never easy. It's doubly hard for many exonerees who often receive no government assistance and must wait years for compensation lawsuits to work through the courts. One exoneree who has received more than $13 million for his wrongful incarceration, Jeffrey Deskovic of New York, is using his resources to help other exonerees.
On February 19th, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman proposed legislation that would allow people who confessed or pled guilty to crimes they did not commit to sue the state for damages. In addition, the new bill would extend the time defendants have to bring their suits from two years to three. Out of the 158 NY exonerations listed in the Registry, 24 were the result of false confessions or guilty pleas, including Shariff Wilson, David Ranta, and Martin Tankleff, each of whom was wrongfully imprisoned for decades.
(Photo by Joshua Bright for New York Times)