Archive for the ‘Wrongful Convictions’ Category

On February 4, the National Registry of Exonerations published its yearly report for 2013.  The Registry, a joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University Law School, collects information on exonerations that have occurred since 1989.  The headlines on the new report (from the New York Times to NBC News to the Huffington Post) nearly all focused on one fact: 2013 saw 87 exonerations, the highest yearly total yet in any year since 1989.

This is a significant fact.  But two other things in the report got less notice and deserve more.

First, for most people, “exoneration” is synonymous with “DNA exoneration.”  This is how the world looks, whether on television (think of CSI and its many clones) or in any news source.  But this view doesn’t reflect the real world.  As the report points out, only about 21 percent of the exonerations in 2013 involved DNA (p. 6).  Despite the impression one gets from the media, this has always been the case; of all of the exonerations since 1989, 72 percent were not based on DNA.  And that difference seems to be increasing.  In both 2012 and 2013, non-DNA exonerations increased significantly, while DNA exonerations decreased (p. 12).

The other fact that many in the media did not notice: for the last two years, the percentage of all exoneration cases resolved with the cooperation of the police or prosecutors has risen dramatically.  In 2012, almost half of all the cases featured cooperation of the police or prosecutors in re-examining cases, leading to exoneration; the average percentage in all the years before (1989-2011) did not reach 30 percent.  The trend continued this year, with almost police or prosecutors cooperating in almost 40 percent of all exonerations.  (A few media organizations, such as Fox News, NPR, and the Christian Science Monitor, featured this fact in their headlines and/or stories.)

This is a very welcome and important development.  While some exonerations have always come about with law enforcement cooperation, this was not the trend.  Despite assurances from Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association that “we always did that, we just didn’t” have a name for the process (see his quote here), the data on the last two years do show a greater willingness to re-examine old cases than in years past.  According to Samuel Gross of the University of Michigan Law School, who edits the Registry, “the sharp, cold shower that DNA gave to the criminal justice system has made us realize that we have to re-examine” closed cases whether with DNA or not.  That idea appears to be sinking on a much wider basis.  And that is all to the good.

 

The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) is one of the leading organizations for law enforcement professionals in the U.S. and around the world.  I regularly turn to their model policy and training documents when working on those issues for police agencies.  So it’s a big deal to see their new report, prepared in conjunction with their partner, the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs, announcing that their new effort in which they will play a leading role in fixing the problems in police investigation that cause wrongful convictions.

The report, titled, “National Summit on Wrongful Convictions: Building a Systemic Approach to Prevent Wrongful Convictions,” takes a full view of the issues that must be addressed to avoid convicting the wrong people, and announces a series of recommendations designed to bring the goal within reach.  It is based on work at a summit of people from IACP, DOJ, and a host of experts.  In a preliminary statement in the report, the President of the IACP and the Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs, outlined how the report came to be and what it does.

This event gathered 75 subject matter experts from all key disciplines to address and examine the causes of and solutions to wrongful convictions across the entire spectrum of the justice system. Summit participants worked diligently during this one-day intensive event to craft 30 focused policy recommendations that guide the way to our collective mission to continually improve the criminal justice system. The summit focused on four critical areas: (1) making rightful arrests, (2) correcting wrongful arrests, (3) leveraging technology and forensic science, and (4) re-examining closed cases. The 30 resulting recommendations directly address these areas and lay a critical foundation for required changes in investigative protocols, policies, training, supervision, and assessment.

The report makes thirty recommendations on a number of topics: eyewitness identifications, false confessions, preventing investigative bias, improving DNA testing procedures, CODIS, correcting wrongful arrests, leveraging technology and forensic science, and re-examining closed cases with an openness to new information.

The report is absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in wrongful convictions and what can be done to correct them.  Readers of my book Failed Evidence will also recognize that the emergence of this consensus at the top of the law enforcement profession is exactly what I have called for: “Police and Prosecutors Must Lead the Effort” (pp. 158-159).

The use of DNA identification as a forensic tool, beginning in 1989, changed the way that we think about guilt, innocence, and traditional police investigation.  It isn’t just the 311 wrongful convictions that DNA identification has confirmed; it’s the far more numerous cases in which DNA has determined guilt — sometimes in cases years or decades old.

Now DNA identification is about to change: it will become even more powerful than it is now.  A new way of processing and interpreting DNA has arrived that will make our current DNA techniques look weak by comparison.

On Friday, Nov. 8, I attended an incredibly interesting talk by Dr. Ria David.  Dr. David is one of the co-founders of Cybergenetics, a company based in Pittsburgh.  Cybergenetics has perfected computer-based techniques and technologies that will change the way that DNA is analyzed.  With Cybergenetics’ TrueAllele (R) system, the analysis relies the power of computers instead of interpretation done by humans.   The talk was sponsored by the Center for Women’s Entrepreneurship (CWE) at Chatham University.  (Disclosure: my wife runs CWE; my wife and I know Dr. David and her Cybergenetics co-founder, Dr. Mark Perlin, but neither my wife nor I have any personal or financial ties of any kind to Cybergenetics.)

Most of us know that a DNA sample allows forensic scientists to say things like “the odds that this sample came from anyone other than the defendant are fifty million to one.”  Pretty powerful stuff — until you learn that Cybergenetics’ systems will allow prosecutors to offer juries odds of not tens of millions to one, but trillions or even quadrillions to one.  In addition, Cybergenetics will allow analysts to pull apart mixtures of DNA from different people, which is common at crime scenes, and which current DNA technology often can’t handle.  Readers of my book Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science can get a little more information in Chapter 7, pp. 186-190; you can get the book here.

Cybergenetics’ DNA system has found ready acceptance in the United Kingdom, but the process has been slower in the U.S. There has been considerable resistance — something readers of Failed Evidence are quite familiar with — particularly at the FBI, which governs current DNA protocols and use.

There is much more to how the Cybergenetics’ TrueAllele system works, and what it can do; I’d urge readers to take a good look at Cybergenetics web site, which gives details on what they do, and the many criminal cases and mass disaster identification cases (including the identification of remains at the World Trade Center site).  Once law enforcement sees what this new method of using DNA can do, and once resistance to change is overcome, DNA will be able to identify many more guilty criminals, as well as exonerate many more of the wrongfully convicted, and it will do so with more certainty that we ever thought possible.

 

According to an article from the Syracuse Post Standard and syracuse.com, New York State has announced it will offer grants to law enforcement agencies for the purchase of equipment need to record police interrogations.  Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office announced the availability of the funding on July 15.  Recording interrogations, the Governor said, would prevent wrongful convictions and protect officers from false accusations.  In his words:

“Fairness and integrity form the foundation of our justice system and New York state is committed to providing local law enforcement with the resources necessary to improve the effectiveness of the process,” Cuomo said in a news release. “Wrongful convictions not only harm the innocent, but they allow the actual perpetrators of crime to remain free. The new equipment that will result from this funding will improve the strength of New York’s criminal justice system, making all New Yorkers safer as a result.”

What’s interesting to notice is how the issue is framed in terms of public safety and the integrity of the system.  Yes, recording will prevent the catastrophe of convicting the innocent, but at least as important, convicting an innocent person leaves the real predator on the street, able to kill or rape again.  And the thrust of the idea is to bolster the “fairness and integrity” of the system, because wrongful convictions eat away at both.

Readers, does New York State have mandatory standards, or any standards, for the recording of confessions?  Does your police department record interrogations?  The article states that “345 law enforcement agencies in 58 of the 62 counties statewide video record suspect interrogations, according to the governor’s office,” and supplies a partial list.

I’ll present a talk on my book Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science (2012) at Ohio State’s Moritz College of Law in Columbus on Wed., March 20.  The talk will be at noon in Room 246 of Drinko Hall, 55 W. 12th Avenue
Columbus, OH 43210.  The event is free and open to the public.

More information on the event is here.

Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science (NYU Press, 2012) has been reviewed in Chemical and Engineering News, the publication of the prestigious American Chemical Society.  The review, entitled “Why Criminal Law Ignores Science,” is both enthusiastic and nuanced.  Here’s a slice or two:

The [criminal justice] system desperately needs changes, and it needs them fast. In his book, “Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science,” David A. Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, discusses the three most common causes of wrongful convictions, makes recommendations to help right the ship immediately as well as long term, and takes on law enforcement and prosecution that refuse to implement any meaningful changes—even in the face of scientific proof that doing so would decrease the number of wrongful convictions.

This “resistance to sound, science-based police investigative methods” is the theme of “Failed Evidence.” The book is an easy and informative read best suited for policymakers, scientists, advocates, judges, prosecutors, law enforcement, defense attorneys, and anyone with a general interest in the American criminal justice system. Truth be told, anyone who might find themselves sitting in the chair of a juror should read Harris’ book before sitting in judgment of a fellow human.

….

Harris paints a picture suggesting that together we can make a difference. We will never be perfect, but we can do things much better. “Ignoring science, when doing so increases the risk of wrongful convictions, simply does not square with justice or fairness,” he writes. Positive change must happen and as Harris concludes, “Justice demands no less.”

You can read the full review here.

Michael Mermel, formerly a lawyer in the State’s Attorney’s office in Lake County, Illinois, became famous as a the prototypical prosecutor resisting science — even DNA.  Readers will remember Mr. Mermel from my post “Resistance, Thy Name is Mermel” back in June of 2012.  When DNA results in four of the office’s cases did not support the guilty verdicts, Mermel made clear that the DNA results meant nothing to him.  Mermel eventually resigned from the office  after telling The Chicago Tribune: “The taxpayers don’t pay us for intellectual curiosity. They pay us to get convictions.”  Mermel’s boss,  State’s Attorney Michael Waller, was replaced after the last election by Mike Nerheim, who made restoring the damaged integrity of the office one of his top priorities.

Now Nerheim has acted.  He has appointed a special “case review board” to examine possible cases of wrongful convictions.   In a video clip posted on YouTube, Nerheim explained that since “Lake County, Illinois, unfortunately,  has been identified as having an issue  with wrongful convictions,” he had appointed a panel of “independent” lawyers  All of the six appointees “have no ties to these cases or to the office.”   According to Nerheim, an independent “fresh set of eyes” was critical in order to  “restore the public’s trust and confidence in the State’s Attorney’s Office.”

For making integrity of convictions a high priority for his office, Mr. Nerheim deserves credit and applause.  The only thing that seems off is the make up of the case review board.  According to The Chicago Tribune, four of the six members are former prosecutors; one of these four was a prosecutor in the Lake County office.  Without in any way impugning the integrity of the board members, their backgrounds may cause members of the community to perceive the board as less than fair — that the deck is stacked deck in favor of the prosecution.  I take no position on whether this is true or not; the concern is that if the function of this  very worthy panel is to restore trust and integrity, some citizens of Lake County may be less than fully impressed with the independence of the group.  One possible remedy would be to do what DA Craig Watkins has done with his Conviction Integrity Unit in Dallas: he has made the Texas Innocence Project an integral part of the Unit’s work.

Still, it’s important to congratulate Mr. Nerheim and everyone he serves in Lake County, Illinois.  Now things can start to get better, even if they aren’t perfect.

The current issue of the American Criminal Law Review has a review essay of Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science (2012).   According to the review, the book “engages…broadly with forensics” to explore “why law enforcement and prosecutors have shown such marked reluctance to incorporate a modern understanding of the scientific method.”  The review concludes that Failed Evidence “provides a thoughtful analysis of the scientific bases underlying forensics, current evidentiary and investigatory problems, and possible solutions. [The] suggestions are particularly well thought-out because they consider the problems faced by law enforcement when implementing ideal solutions in the real world.”

You can read the full review here.

I wrote in an earlier post that a wrongful conviction amounts to a triple tragedy.  First, the wrongfully convicted person ends up in prison.  Second, the victim is deprived of real justice.  Third, the real perpetrator remains free, and can victimize others.

Today, let’s consider another kind of cost: money paid in compensation to those wrongfully convicted.

In twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia, those wrongfully convicted are eligible to receive some amount of compensation.  No state has to do this; there is no constitutional obligation.

Texas, which has had more wrongful convictions than any other state.  Dallas County,  alone, has twenty-four, a larger number than every state except Illinois and New York.  Perhaps because of of the magnitude of its problem, Texas has one of the more generous compensation schemes in the country.

According to an article in the Austin American Statesman, Texas has paid out some $65 million dollars in wrongful conviction compensation.  This is an enormous amount of money, and according to many authorities, the amount will certainly grow over time.

What accounts for this in Texas, a state that had a lock-’em-all-up mentality on crime for so many years?  One answer comes from Texas State Senator Rodney Ellis, one of Texas’ leaders on criminal justice reform.  “The justice system in Texas had fundamental flaws, and this is the result.  At this point, I don’t think anyone can seriously doubt that we had a problem — a big problem.”  Another member of the legislature, Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, sees the compensation as a way to get the system to respond to the mistakes of the past.  “I’m committed to correcting the problems we know have been a problem in our system in the past. We have to make the system accountable.”

Of course, it is worth pointing out that this isn’t the only monetary cost of wrongful convictions.  Costs for trials and appeals of the wrong people can run into the millions of dollars before a person is exonerated.

Prosecutors, police, and some lawmakers have opposed the compensation system.  Some of them believe the compensation system in Texas is too generous.

But some folks in Texas disagree.  As Chairman Whitmire says, “it’s just the right thing to do.”  Legislative spokesperson Jeremy Warren adds that “people can get upset about the level of compensation, but imagine spending years and years in prison for a crime they did not commit. If it was you, how much would be enough?”

So if tougher-than-tough Texas can do this, why can’t other states?

This week, Jurist, a national and international legal reporting website, is featuring my commentary on Failed Evidence.   Here’s a quick sample:

[The] image of a deep alliance between police work and modern science is misleading at best. With the exception of DNA work and certain kinds of classic chemical analysis, law enforcement generally does not embrace existing scientific work. In fact, police and prosecutors in the US resist science. The scientific work I am referring to involves the testing of the more traditional techniques of law enforcement investigation and prosecution: not the high-tech sheen of the DNA lab, but scientific testing of eyewitness identification, the interrogation of suspects and the more traditional forensic methods such as fingerprint identification. This is the daily bread and butter of law enforcement, and scientists have found it wanting. The science on these basic police investigation methods has existed for years — some of it for decades. It is rigorous, and has undergone peer review, publication and replication. It tells us what the problems with traditional police work are, and also gives us some straightforward ways of solving these problems. Yet, most — not all, to be sure, but most — of American law enforcement continues to resist this science and refuses to change its basic tactics to reflect the best of what science has to offer.

Jurist mixes straight reporting and commentary from the U.S. and around the world; it’s a great source for anyone interested in issues of justice and how it plays out in domestic and international situations around the world.  (Full disclosure: Jurist is supported by my own institution, the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, and has been guided and run since the beginning by my esteemed colleague, Professor Bernard Hibbitts.)  Check it out.