Thursday, February 05, 2015

Does Latest NC Exoneration Highlight a Troubling Trend?

The following was published and broadcast by Public News Service - NC on February 2, 2015.

ALEIGH, N.C. – The recent exoneration of Joseph Sledge in North Carolina is just one of dozens nationally in the past year, and a case that some say highlights the need for legal system reforms.

Sledge spent 38 years behind bars for murder before missing evidence led to his release.

It's a story similar to those of Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, both of whom were exonerated in September after 30 years in prison.

Vernetta Alston, an attorney who represented McCollum, calls it a troubling trend.

"In Joseph Sledge's case, we're seeing the same things that we saw in McCollum and Brown,” she points out. “Evidence was mishandled, these guys were manipulated, and snitch testimony was allowed in.

“And it's a huge problem across our system, and one that lawmakers need to think about doing something about."

McCollum was on death row when he was exonerated, and Alston says if Sledge had been there, he could have been executed by now.

She maintains many older cases should be re-examined, and that greater accountability is needed in law enforcement and crime labs.

According to a new report, 2014 saw a record 125 exonerations nationally.

Kristin Collins, associate director of communications with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, says murder convictions should be built on fair trials and iron-clad evidence.

But she says that's often not the case, and explains that during Sledge's trial in 1978, there was overt racism and evidence was ignored.

"These cases, they're just so sloppy a lot of times, and the idea that we could execute people or keep them in prison for life – we need a better system if we're going to do that," she stresses.

The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission was launched in 2006. Alston says it's been instrumental in examining post-conviction claims.

"An innocence inquiry commission just has such tremendous subpoena power, in terms of being able to get records and compel agencies to turn over evidence and records in a way that we simply can't, through the legal process," she states.

Sledge is the eighth person exonerated by the commission. Alston says there are many more cases awaiting investigation than the commission can handle. - See more at: http://www.publicnewsservice.org/2015-02-02/social-justice/does-latest-nc-exoneration-highlight-a-troubling-trend/a44279-1#sthash.8egxEWMH.dpuf

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

DNA evidence should be permitted

The following editorial was published by the Asbury Park Press on January 14, 2015.

The aim of the American justice system is, in essence, a search for the truth, to ensure the guilty pay for their crimes and the innocent go free.
The Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office seems to have forgotten that, and is rightly being forced in court to justify itself in the face of its refusal to test newly rediscovered DNA evidence that could exonerate a convicted man. A court hearing scheduled Monday before Superior Court Judge Ronald L. Reisner to force the county to do the testing has been postponed until February 27.
Dion Harrell, 48, of Long Branch, who was convicted in 1992 of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old girl there, has always maintained his innocence. Although he has been out of prison for about 17 years after serving four years of an eight-year sentence, he still wants to clear his name. But the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office is blocking Harrell's attempt to have DNA from the 1988 crime analyzed to prove one way or another whether he is the man who committed the sexual assault.
The prosecutor's reason for not agreeing to have the DNA tested is based on a peculiar reading of a state law that allows for DNA testing on evidence in the cases of convicted defendants currently imprisoned who are seeking exoneration. Since Harrell is out of jail, the prosecutor says, he is out of luck.
Assistant Monmouth County Prosecutor Mary Juliano stated in court papers that the testing would prolong the final disposition of the case, writing that "The State believes the conviction is entitled to finality."
That is an outrageous statement: "The conviction is entitled to finality?" Shouldn't Harrell's desire for justice trump the prosecution's desire for the conviction to be put to bed once and for all. There is always a public interest in finding the truth.
If Harrell is innocent, that means the perpetrator of the Long Branch rape may still be at large. The conviction rested on a couple of thin reeds to begin with: the victim's eyewitness identification of him and expert testimony that he could not be excluded as the rapist because of his blood type.
Any reasonable person would have to agree that Harrell has yet to get free from the shadow his possibly wrong conviction has cast over his life. His address is readily displayed on the Internet on the state's sex offender registry, which has led to trouble finding housing and employment.
According to the New York-based Innocence Project, which provides free representation to convicts seeking to prove their innocence and is working on behalf of Harrell, there have been 325 exonerations nationwide as a result of DNA testing. There have been eight exonerations in New Jersey.
With its ongoing battle to refuse to test the DNA, the Monmouth Prosecutor's Office is thwarting justice in two ways. It isn't allowing Harrell to clear his name and it could be allowing the true perpetrator to escape justice. It's a double black eye for the office.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

A Man Wrongfully Incarcerated Becomes a Prison Reformer

by Jeffrey Deskovic, published by GoodMenProject.com on December 19, 2014

After spending 16 years wrongfully incarcerated, Jeffrey Deskovic could have re-entered society bitter and downtrodden. Instead, he began to exhaustively work to help others in his situation.

I spent 16 years, from ages 17 to 32, in prison in New York for being wrongfully convicted of murder and rape. This was prior to being proven innocent via DNA testing eight years ago, which identified the actual perpetrator, who was subsequently convicted. Thanks to a full scholarship from Mercy College, I completed a B.A., later obtaining a Masters Degree from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. I am also the director of The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, which I founded to fight wrongful convictions.

My views on prison reform are shaped by personal experience, formal education, and informal studying. There are three important reasons why we should care about prison reform, rather than thinking “who cares what happens to prisoners, they committed crimes.” If we subject incarcerated people to bad prison conditions, we are deterring rehabilitation. People are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment. As a society, we lose our humanity, and our moral standing in the world-at-large, if we treat incarcerated people badly.

Here are ten ideas on prison reform:

Separate youth from adults.
At 17 years of age and weighing approximately 150 pounds, I was sent to a men’s maximum security facility that was filled with fully developed adults, many of whom were guilty of having committed serious violent crimes. To say that I was vulnerable was an understatement, and over the years I was repeatedly physically—though thank God not sexually-assaulted. Youth convicted of crimes should be housed in Division For Youth Facilities until 21, even if they have been charged as an adult, then transferred to a facility set aside for incarcerated people 21-25, before co-mingling them with the general population. To facilitate visitation, recognized as an important factor in formerly incarcerated people transitioning to a crime free life, there should be one such designated facility near the city, and one in upstate New York. Currently, visitors often must travel 5-8 hours each way to facilities far away: so time consuming and costly a proposition that they often don’t bother.

Separate violent offenders from non-violent offenders.
Incarcerated people convicted of non-violent offenses should not be housed with those convicted of violent crimes. Additionally, regardless of the charges, those whose actions demonstrate that they choose to conduct themselves violently while incarcerated should be separated from those that don’t. I sometimes found myself, and others I knew who eschewed violence, forced to physically defend ourselves.

Segregate vulnerable populations.
Incarcerated people convicted of sex-offenses, or with mental health issues, or otherwise deemed by security to be vulnerable to abuse, should be separated from the general population.

Eliminate visitation deterrents.
Staff often are verbally abusive during visitor processing. Once admitted to the visiting room, visitors often are made to wait for up to two and half hours before the incarcerated person shows up. Incarcerated people should be informed immediately that they have a visit.

Aggressively stop staff verbal abuse.
Some of the correction officers verbally abused the incarcerated, while their co-workers and supervisors not only looked the other way, but often laughed and even sometime participated.

Upgrade medical care.
The medical staff’s answer to nearly everything was issuing Tylenol and telling incarcerated people to come back the next day. It often took a month or longer to see a doctor. Some of the nurses and doctors had bad attitudes. Staff sometimes were more interested in saving the state money than the care of their patients: once a doctor refused to sign off, for financial reasons, on a trip to an outside doctor to treat a badly injured pinky because I “still had partial movement”. I now have a permanent disability, unless I want to have it broken and reset. In some states, medical staff have been discovered not to have received an accredited education; a review of qualifications is in order.

Improve meal quality.
Meals sometimes were not fully cooked, or burned, while at other times were very greasy. Staff simply did not care. Portion control was an issue: Sunday “dinner” was often 2 pieces of baloney, an old hot dog bun, a bag of potato chips that was mostly air, ¼ of a slice of canned peaches, and a bowl of soup. Some soup consisted of leftover ingredients previously served out two or three times and had merely been mixed with plain water; hence most would not eat it.

Bring back college.
The recidivism rate was extremely low for incarcerated people who received a college education. Why? Education equips incarcerated people for gainful employment and expands their horizons. It is better to spend money for college education on the front end, estimated at costing $5000 more per incarcerated person per year, than to spend $60,000 for reincarceration, with the numbers provided from Gov. Cuomo. The formerly incarcerated would be paying taxes rather than draining them, and we could prevent future crime victims. Rhetoric aside, college education is a serious crime prevention initiative.

Update vocational curriculum and insist that instructors instruct.
Many instructors were simply there for a paycheck and did not actively teach. They had no oversight. Additionally, the curriculum was obsolete.

Provide religion based meal options.
In Elmira and nearly all prisons in New York with the exception of Green Haven, Jewish incarcerated people were not given hot meals: everything was cold cuts, tuna fish, fresh vegetables and fruits. An exception was Hanukah, where warm meals were prepared and served after the general population. Why couldn’t similar arrangements be made all the time? Muslims too should be provided with food within their dietary restrictions—it would not involve additional cost, it just means that a decrease of one type of food supply and an increase in another.

It may be hard for one person to push for these reforms. But standing together gives activists a powerful and influential voice. Please stand together with the Deskovic Foundation for Justice this Holiday season and help us fight for criminal justice reform.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Lawyer lied during Kirstin Lobato’s Nevada Supreme Court arguments

by Special to the Las Vegas Tribune November 13, 2014

A minimum-wage convenience store clerk who lies under oath in court can be convicted of perjury and sentenced to prison. In contrast, a highly paid lawyer can fearlessly lie his or her head off when publicly appearing before the Nevada Supreme Court.

We know that because of what occurred during oral arguments before the full Nevada Supreme Court on September 9, 2014 concerning Kirstin Blaise Lobato’s habeas corpus appeal. The attorney representing the
State of Nevada — Clark County Assistant District Attorney Steven S. Owens — repeatedly lied about issues related to Ms. Lobato’s case.

The Supreme Court’s response has been deafening silence. Owens’ dishonest assertions include:

1) Owens lied twice that Ms. Lobato made a “confession” related to Duran Bailey’s homicide in Las Vegas on July 8, 2001. (Oral Arguments [OA] at 9, 13. See note at end.) The truth is that during Ms. Lobato’s trial the State didn’t assert in its opening statement, closing argument, or present trial testimony she made a “confession” to Bailey’s homicide. It exists only in Owens’ imagination.

2) Owens lied, “She was convicted by her own words at the trial, and her own words belie the argument that she is actually innocent.” (OA at 7-8.) The truth is there is nothing incriminating regarding Bailey’s homicide in her police Statement or comments attributed to her — none of which even include the date, location, or manner of Bailey’s death from a head injury. Furthermore, Ms. Lobato’s habeas petition details her conviction was due to Metro Det. Thomas Thowsen’s extensive false testimony regarding her Statement and comments, and his alleged investigations; and more than 275 unrebutted instances of prejudicial prosecutor misconduct during her trial — none of which were objected to by her lawyer.

3) Owens lied, “Shortly thereafter [Bailey’s homicide], Kirstin Lobato in Panaca, Nevada, started talking about a severed penis.” (OA at 7)
The truth is Ms. Lobato mentioned in her Statement that prior to June 20, 2001 she had a conversation with a woman about the Las Vegas rape attempt she fended off with her pocket knife. Also, her habeas
petition includes unrebutted new evidence by nine alibi witnesses who were informed by her beginning in May 2001 that she used her pocket knife to fend off a would-be rapist in Las Vegas.

4) Owens lied that Ms. Lobato’s vague comment referring to a conversation with her father is evidence of a guilty mind to Bailey’s homicide. (OA at 8) The truth is her comment refers to a conversation with her father in June 2001 — weeks prior to Bailey’s homicide.

5) Owens lied, “But nothing at the crime scene is going to help them because the jury already knew that evidence there pointed away from Kirstin.” (OA at 13) The truth is Ms. Lobato’s unrebutted new exculpatory crime scene evidence establishes among other things that Bailey’s killer made all the shoeprints imprinted in blood and they don’t match Ms. Lobato; Bailey’s cutting and stab wounds were not inflicted by her pocket knife; and Bailey was alive when his rectum injury occurred, proving she was convicted of a non-existent violation of NRS 201.450. Furthermore, two jurors determined after reviewing all the new evidence that “it could have possibly resulted in either a hung jury or Ms. Lobato’s acquittal.”

6) Owens lied Bailey’s time of death isn’t “critical.” (OA at 10) The truth is the State’s theory of Ms. Lobato’s guilt depended on convincing the jury Bailey died before 7 a.m.

7) Owens lied the jury “rejected” Ms. Lobato’s alibi evidence she was in Panaca the evening of July 8. (OA at 10) The truth is the State conceded during its closing argument it is factually true she was in Panaca from at least “11:30 a.m. through the night.”
8) Owens lied in his assertions Ms. Lobato’s unrebutted new expert forensic evidence Bailey died after 8 p.m. isn’t important. (OA at 10)  The truth is the State conceded at trial she was in Panaca 165 miles from Las Vegas at that time, so it is impossible she committed his homicide.

9) Owens lied, “We have here a couple statutory remedies that Ms. Lobato could avail herself of. … and the other is a motion for DNA testing…” (OA at 12) The truth is Ms. Lobato’s petition for post-conviction DNA testing of crime scene evidence — including semen recovered from Bailey’s rectum — was vigorously opposed by the Clark County D.A. and denied by Judge Valorie Vega. The Nevada Supreme Court dismissed her appeal, “Because the order is not appealable.”

The foregoing is only a partial litany of Owens’ gross dishonesty throughout his argument. It was a continuation of Owens’ dishonesty related to Ms. Lobato’s case. His false public statements to KLAS-TV (Las Vegas), the Associated Press, and the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and in documents filed in the Nevada Supreme Court, are detailed in a letter sent to Clark County District Attorney Steven Wolfson dated July 3, 2012. That letter states: “Mr. Owens’ pervasive dishonesty is a gravely serious matter.” (p. 11) (The letter is online at, http://justicedenied.org/kl/wolfsonletter.pdf.) Wolfson’s inaction is evidence he expects less honesty from his deputies than responsible parents expect from their four-year-old child.

The Supreme Court has the authority to hold Owens in contempt of court for his dishonest and deceptive conduct and impose sanctions, and to refer him to the State Bar of Nevada for investigation. Owens’ unrestrained dishonesty that denied Ms. Lobato her right to a fair hearing is “good cause” for the Court to exercise its authority to sua sponte strike his arguments from consideration of her appeal.
The Nevada Supreme Court should hold Steven S. Owens accountable for his contemptible conduct and take the most extreme actions possible to protect Ms. Lobato’s rights, and the integrity of the Court and its deliberation process.
* * *
Hans Sherrer is President of the Justice Institute based in Seattle, Washington, that promotes awareness of wrongful conviction and conducted a post-conviction investigation of Ms. Lobato’s case. Its website is, www.justicedenied.org.

Friday, November 14, 2014

I Feared I’d Die in Prison for Maintaining My Innocence

The following article by Fernando Bermudez was published by the New York Times on November 13, 2014.

Fernando Bermudez spent 18 years prison after being convicted of murder in 1991, before being found innocent. Married with three children, he earned a bachelor's degree in behavioral science and is considering going to law school. As a speaker, he has given more than 250 talks in the United States and overseas.

Imagine yourself happy, on the verge of a career, promotion or meaningful relationship, then suddenly trapped in prison, fighting for freedom and your sanity over a crime you did not commit.
In 1991 I never imagined this would happen to me when I was arrested, convicted and incarcerated for murder. My wrongful conviction stole over 18 years of happiness for my family and I until Justice John Cataldo of State Supreme Court in Manhattan dismissed the charges and declared me actually innocent in 2009. He ruled that the police and prosecutors had used perjured testimony and illegal identification.

I wrestled with many fears during my incarceration, surrounded by violence. But my greatest fear was that I could die in prison maintaining my innocence. Year after year, I witnessed the parole board deny release to inmates who maintained their innocence, like one friend who died in prison after being denied parole every two years. Others used drugs to numb the painful reality of being trapped while innocent.

If I had stayed in prison, I would have been eligible for an appearance before the board this year. How would I have passed through the eye of that legal needle? I often thought. Exonerating evidence had long been accumulating since 1992. As an innocent man I would have poured my heart out to them with the truth that I was willing to die for. Daily, I was mentally and physically tortured with thoughts that a parole board would consider me in denial and reject my freedom.

Luckily , after years of fighting, with the help of pro bono lawyers, I won my case, which prosecutors never appealed. But the horrible, looming dilemma I faced still pains me.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Martha Coakley, stop lauding bad science

The following opinion by Lee Scheier was published in the Boston Globe on October 16, 2014.

AFTER COMING under attack in an political ad for not doing enough to protect children, Martha Coakley, the Democratic candidate for governor, defended her record. In a large above-the-fold photograph published in the Globe Oct. 3, Coakley is seen standing next to Deborah Eappen, mother of Matthew Eappen, the baby whom Louise Woodward was charged with shaking to death in 1997.

Coakley, the prosecutor in that infamous trial, set up the photo op ostensibly to remind the public of her commitment to protecting children. If so, Coakley must think Massachusetts voters have short memories.

Although Woodward was found guilty of second degree murder by the jury, trial judge Hiller Zobel reduced the sentence to manslaughter and set Woodward free. Zobel’s skepticism of the justice of Woodward’s murder conviction was prescient: Dr. Patrick Barnes, Coakley’s chief expert witness in the case, later publicly renounced his own trial testimony as based on flawed scientific assumptions.

Coakley’s odd invocation of this case demands that we look at the facts. What cannot be lost in all of this political maneuvering is the truth about the Woodward case and all the thousands of shaken-baby cases before and since Woodward. The truth is that Martha Coakley’s deft misuse of science actually came very close to sending an innocent caretaker to prison for life.

At the heart of the Woodward prosecution — and many others like it — is the pseudoscience of the shaken-baby syndrome diagnosis. Anecdotal studies by pediatric neurosurgeon Norman Guthkelch in 1971 and radiologist John Caffey in 1972 and 1974 asserted that the presence of the so-called “triad” — subdural and retinal bleeding plus brain swelling — in an infant constituted certain proof that the last caretaker to hold a baby had “shaken” that child to death. Under Guthkelch and Caffey’s theory, this could be the only cause of death. Because of these studies — and because nearly all shaking cases have no eyewitness — the presence of the triad was the only evidence necessary to prove murder.

In recent years, however, experts have become increasingly skeptical. “The problem lies with Caffey’s level of certainty that subdural bleeding along with bleeding in the eyes could only be caused by shaking,” says Louis Fogg, a professor at Rush University and the former president of the Chicago chapter of the American Statistical Association.

Fogg, who received his doctorate from the University of Chicago in scientific methodology, is an expert in designing and evaluating scientific research. He has concluded: “[Caffey] is manufacturing a degree of certainty that doesn’t exist from his research. A reasonable person can’t look at this research and say it is proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. There are a lot of doubts here. This is not the kind of stuff you can send people to jail for.”

Martha Coakley’s deft misuse of science in the shaken-baby trial actually came very close to sending an innocent caretaker to prison for life.

Fogg goes on to note that all of the many published studies that purport to confirm the validity of shaken baby syndrome are false. “Every study accepts nonscientific evidence as if it is scientific,” he explains.

Doubts about shaken baby syndrome have grown considerably since it has been established that many diseases, medical conditions, short accidental falls, or re-bleeds also manifest the identical “triad” of clinical signs. Indeed, it likely was an injury from a short accidental fall weeks before Matthew Eappen died, which re-bled later — not any supposed shaking by Louise Woodward — that caused his death.

Barnes, the expert Coakley relied on to convict Woodward, is one of the physicians who has questioned the legitimacy of the diagnosis. When asked on PBS’s Frontline in 2011, “If you were called to testify in the Woodward case today what would you say?” Barnes responded, “I would say that you cannot select out, accuse, indict, or convict any particular caretaker based on the medical evidence that we have.”

Perhaps most tellingly, Dr. Gulthkelch himself — one of the scientists who first posited the theory — has since voiced concerns about its application in the criminal justice system.

Nonetheless, in the face of rigorous scientific evidence to the contrary, many in the medical community still claim that shaken baby syndrome is a valid diagnosis because so many within the medical community support it. But science is not a popularity contest. After all, Galileo was the only scientist of his day who believed that the earth revolved around the sun.

And this consensus does nothing to alter the fact that, to this day, there has never been an experiment that proves a causal link between shaking a baby and death. “An association alone between shaking and the triad contains so much inherent doubt that no jury in good conscience should convict on that evidence alone,” says Fogg. “You need strong experimental evidence of causation if you’re going to send someone to prison.”

This lack of strong experimental evidence of causation did not stop Coakley from trying to send Woodward to prison for life. And despite the growing chorus of scientists casting doubt on shaken baby syndrome, such prosecutions continue: In Middlesex County, nanny Aisling Brady McCarthy currently stands accused of shaking 1-year old Rehma Sabir to death. Prosecutors should hang their heads in shame for blindly accepting bad science and bringing these cases to court.

Indeed, Coakley nearly sending a young, innocent woman to prison is nothing to be proud of. It is certainly not worthy of a photo shoot in a political election.

Lee Scheier is an investigative journalist who has written extensively for the Chicago Tribune and many other publications. He has spent the last eight years researching a book on shaken-baby syndrome.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Yet another exoneration demonstrates the desperate need for reform

The following commentary by Rob Schofield was published by the Progressive Pulse on Octobe 17, 2014.

You know something’s dreadfully wrong with your system of criminal justice when the full exoneration of innocent men convicted of heinous crimes keeps happening over and over. Another one occurred in North Carolina today when Willie Womble — a man who has spent 39 of his 60 years on the planet incarcerated for a crime he did not commit — was cleared of a crime that occurred in 1975.

Good lord! How do the still-living people who had a role in such a miscarriage of justice sleep at night?

Obviously, there’s no getting Mr. Womble back his life that the people of North Carolina and their officers and employees wrongfully and tragically stole, but here are a few things that Gov. McCrory ought to consider doing immediately:

1) Ordering the immediate commutation of all death sentences in the state to life in prison,

2) Taking whatever steps are necessary to provide for a dramatic increase in the budget and staffing of the Innocence Inquiry Commission (and maybe the private nonprofit known as the NC Center on Actual Innocence as well) along with the directive that it (they) undertake a review of a vastly larger number of the state’s existing murder convictions — if not all of them, and

3) Announcing that he will no longer approve of any new death sentences in the state until — at a minimum — a complete and full review of every such case has occurred.