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)
In February 2014, the Exoneration Initiative (EXI) got the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division to order the New York Police Department to turn over files previously withheld, including an eyewitness statement in a 1996 murder EXI is investigating. But the panel said the NYPD did not have to provide information such as telephone numbers and addresses for two eyewitnesses, and that the city need not pay $49,000 in legal fees awarded to EXI by the trial court.
This is one of several on-going cases of innocence projects suing for records under freedom of information acts. In 2012, the Michigan Innocence Clinic sued Detroit for records the city lost access to when it failed to pay its storage bill. The lawsuit is stayed indefinitely while Detroit is in bankruptcy proceedings.
In August 2013, the Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO) filed a lawsuit claiming that New Orleans violated Louisiana's Public Records Act when it demanded $1,800 for 12 reports. In November 2013, a state appeals court upheld a decision requiring the city to pay IPNO over $8,000 and immediately produce the reports without charge. IPNO is litigating several other Public Records Act cases.
On February 6, Anthony Yarbough
and Sharrif Wilson
were exonerated after 22 years in prison when newly-elected Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson dismissed murder charges against them. As the New York Times notes, these are just two of many possible wrongful convictions under review by the Brooklyn Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU). Sparked by David Ranta's
exoneration in 2013, the review includes more than 50 cases investigated by retired Detective Louis Scarcella
, among others. The CIU was established by former-District Attorney Charles Hynes, who was criticized
by Thompson for not committing sufficient resources to the CIU.
Eighty-seven (87) known exonerations occurred in 2013, more than any previous year, making 2013 a record-breaking year for exonerations in the United States. This increase is exclusively in non-DNA exonerations; the number of DNA exonerations is slowly decreasing over time. The National Registry of Exoneration's Report
, based on the 1,281 exonerations know at the end of 2013, also discusses long-term trends such as the increase in exonerations after guilty pleas and in No-Crime cases, the geographic location of exonerations, and the causes of wrongful convictions.
Frederick Spencer (pictured, right) was released from prison in Michigan in October 2013. He had served 7 years of a life sentence for murder and arson when a federal judge ordered a new trial because statements he gave to police were involuntary - and released Spencer while the state appealed that ruling. On January 19, 2014, Spencer died from complications of lung cancer that were largely untreated while he was in prison. Because of Spencer's untimely death, the appeal in his case can no longer be decided and his original conviction remains intact. As a result, Spencer - like numerous other convicted defendants with substantial evidence of innocence - will have no opportunity to clear his name.
The Registry includes 12 cases
where a defendant was exonerated posthumously.
In an unprecedented decision, the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court ruled last week that criminal defendants may challenge their convictions on the basis of "actual innocence." The court, New York's intermediate appellate tribunal, held that imprisoning an innocent person violates the state constitution's Due Process Clause. Under the ruling, Derrick Hamilton (pictured), is entitled to have charges dismissed by the trial court if he can prove by "clear and convincing evidence" that he was in New Haven at the time of a murder in Brooklyn for which he was convicted in 1993.
On January 10, 2014, the Departments of Justice and Commerce announced the appointment of more than 30 experts to the newly created National Commission on Forensic Science. The Commission will propose a code of professional responsibility for forensic scientists, draft requirements for training and certification, and offer policy recommendations to government officials.
False or misleading forensic science contributed to at least 282
known exonerations, including Gerard Richardson
who spent almost 20 years in prison based on faulty forensic odontology. The announcement coincided with a vote by the Texas Forensic Science Commission
to review convictions based in part on microscopic hair analysis. A similar federal review
was initiated in July 2013.
An article by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie in Slate
discusses the wave of child sex abuse hysteria, often involving claims of satanic ritual abuse, that spread across the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, leading to numerous wrongful convictions and at least 50 exonerations
. New convictions of satanic ritual sex abuse are rare, but Fran and Dan Keller in Travis County, Texas, and the San Antonio Four
are still fighting to clear their names.