Tuesday, September 20, 2016

JonBenet Television "Reinvestigations"

by Sheila Berry, Executive Director
Truth in Justice

In the span of two weeks, NBC, Investigation Discovery and CBS have given us heavily publicized "reinvestigations" of the murder of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey in Boulder, CO on December 26, 1996.  Of these, the first two were pedestrian rehashes, but the CBS 2-part special can only be accurately described in three words:  What a crock.

Lets review the "experts" involved in this article: The team consisted of a man accused by a judge of hiding and/or destroying evidence, a former FBI profiler, a chief investigator, a forensic pathologist, a former linguistic profiler, a criminal behavior analyst, and a former statement analyst. Aside from the investigator and pathologist, none of the disciplines these people represent are based in any hard science. We are in the day and age where fingerprints, firearms, shoeprints and DNA are all being challenged as being unreliable.

Funny, it wasn't too long ago that in the Phil Spector murder trial, Henry Lee was identified as part of a serious problem.  http://www.cnn.com/2007/US/law/12/11/court.archive.spector4/index.html?iref=nextin  The judge in that case concluded that Lee hid or destroyed evidence from the scene of an actress's death, evidence that the prosecution contends was potentially damaging to the music producer's case

Ghost Hunters shows greater objectivity trying to understand EVPs than these “experts” did in reviewing the 911 call. “Might be” becomes “definitely is” and then it “changes everything.” Their “analysis” of the ransom note is nothing more than hocus pocus in a lab coat.

They know that handwriting comparison cannot be done when the questioned writing is made with felt tip pen, because it is impossible to discern the pressure used and hesitation marks that are key to identifying authors. No matter. They forge ahead and declare a woman wrote it. I’ve seen their work before, finding innocent people guilty because their handwritten statements don’t fit the experts’ preconceived notions.

So brand new underpants could contain DNA from someone on the assembly line when they were made. Was JonBenet wearing new underpants? Who knows? Who cares? Score another one for the experts.

How about the male DNA under her fingernails? Doesn’t fit the theory so they have to leave it out. Same with the black duct tape over her mouth, never found in the Ramsey house, although evidence suggested "it came from a roll of tape that had been used before." Nothing in the Ramsey home matched dark animal hairs found on the duct tape and JonBenét's hands. Just leave that out, too. Leave out the pubic hair found on the blanket in which she was wrapped, unless the claim is that her 9-year-old brother was sexually precocious and fully developed. A baseball bat found outside the house with fibers consistent with fibers found on the carpet in the basement where JonBenét's body was found did not belong to the Ramseys. Brown cotton fibers found on JonBenét's body, the paintbrush used as a garrote, the duct tape and the ligature around her neck did not match anything in the Ramsey home. Forget all of that. It's all very interesting, but they have a suspect, and it just doesn't fit.

There was a lawsuit 16 years ago, filed by Robert Christian Wolf against John and Patsy Ramsey. Wolf was a Boulder, CO journalist who was questioned by police as a possible suspect in the case. He sued the Ramseys, claiming they defamed him by naming him as a suspect in their book, "The Death of Innocence: The Untold Story of JonBenet's Murder and How Exploitation Compromised the Pursuit of Truth." (Nothing has changed in that department.) U.S. District Judge Julie E. Carnes granted summary judgment in favor of the Ramseys and against Wolf, and in her 93-page dismissal order, reviewed all of the evidence pertaining to JonBenet's murder. A 2003 report from the Fulton County Reporter is at http://truthinjustice.org/ramsey.htm. and Judge Carnes' dismissal order can be downloaded via Pacer.

Salacious speculation and innuendo, the contemporary version of spectral evidence, are all it takes to point the finger at a 9-year-old kid. I used to wonder what the term “media whore” meant. Now I know.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

California's Prop. 66 will increase the risk of executing the innocent

The following opinion by Van Jones was published by The Orange County Register on September 18, 2016.

Philando Castile. Eric Garner. Alton Sterling. It goes on and on. Terrifying displays of violence against innocent black men and communities of color are fueling national attention on racial inequality across the country. The criminal justice system, in particular, demonstrates these inequalities.

While disparate treatment by police has garnered the most attention, racial inequalities exist at every stage of the criminal justice process — all the way to the ultimate punishment: the imposition of the death penalty. This fall in California, the repercussions of racial disparities in death penalty sentencing could become much worse if voters enact a reckless ballot measure: Proposition 66.

Proposition 66 is a misleading initiative that will change death penalty procedures in several ways that will increase the state’s risk of executing innocent people. Prop. 66 would remove important legal protections that currently exist in California law to prevent the ultimate injustice. As with most criminal justice policies, Prop. 66 would disproportionately affect people of color. Black and Latino men, in particular, will be at greater risk of being executed for crimes they didn’t commit. Of the 156 innocent people exonerated from death rows nationwide, 61 percent were people of color.

People of color account for more than half of those awaiting execution, while only representing one-third of the general population in the U.S. In California, these disparities are even more stark. Black people account for 57 percent of the folks on death row but only 7 percent of the general population. In 2015, 86 percent of new death sentences were given to people of color. One California study found that individuals who kill a white victim are three times more likely to get a death sentence than those who kill a Latino victim, and four times more likely to get a death sentence than those who kill an African American victim.

Systemic racial bias in the death penalty is also demonstrated by lack of diversity among prosecutors and juries. A 2015 study found that 95 percent of elected prosecutors in states that allow the death penalty are white. Even in a state as diverse as California, 83 percent of elected prosecutors are white. Research over the past several decades has demonstrated that people of color are excluded from serving on juries in capital cases at much higher rates.

If passed, Prop. 66 would make California’s death penalty laws more similar to Texas’ laws, which have resulted in the execution of at least two innocent people in recent memory. One of those people was Carlos De Luna. De Luna was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for murder, even though no blood, DNA or fingerprint evidence linked him to the crime. Due to Texas law, De Luna was unable to adequately present evidence of his innocence and was executed, despite the fact that another man who bared striking resemblance to De Luna admitted to the murder.

Prop. 66 would make it harder for defendants to introduce newly discovered evidence of their innocence. For all the reasons above, people of color would be most at risk of suffering adverse consequences. In this case, Prop. 66 literally could be the difference between life and death for innocent people.

As if increasing the risk of executing innocent people was not reason enough to vote no, Prop. 66 will vastly increase costs to Californians and strain scarce resources. The initiative is confusing, poorly written and lacks understanding of how the death penalty operates in California, which will lead to substantial burdens for taxpayers and government agencies. The state’s nonpartisan analysts estimate that Prop. 66 will increase costs to taxpayers by tens of millions of dollars plus even more “unknown” costs. The initiative will add more layers of government bureaucracy by requiring local county courts to adjudicate death penalty appeals (currently, the state Supreme Court handles these), creating the exact opposite of expediency and encumbering already overburdened agencies with life-and-death responsibilities they are not equipped to handle.

It is time to send a message that we will not tolerate racial bias in any aspect of the criminal justice system, including in the administration of the death penalty. We must oppose any and all measures that would increase the chance of executing innocent men and women. We have seen too many innocent people of color killed for no reason other than their skin color. People of color would be disproportionately affected by this reckless and ill-conceived measure. Californians must vote no on Prop. 66.

Van Jones is a CNN political contributor, attorney, and has founded and led numerous social enterprises engaged in social and environmental justice.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Journal Times editorial: State should let Brendan Dassey, Steven Avery's nephew, go free

The following editorial was published by the Journal Times (Racine, Wisconsin) on August 21, 2016.

The seemingly never-ending case of the murder of Teresa Halbach took another strange turn this month, when a federal magistrate in Milwaukee overturned the murder conviction of Brendan Dassey, the nephew of Steven Avery who also was convicted in the crime.

Halbach, a 25-year-old photographer, was raped and brutally murdered on Halloween 2005 near Avery’s Manitowoc County family salvage yard, where she had gone to take photos for a car sale magazine. Her bones were later found in a burn pit near Avery’s trailer.

U.S. Magistrate Judge William Duffin concluded that Dassey’s constitutional rights had been violated and was highly critical of the actions of investigators, Dassey’s attorney and state courts in securing a pressured confession from the then-16-year-old who suffers from learning disabilities.

He gave prosecutors 90 days to decide whether to retry Dassey, who has been in prison now for almost a decade, to appeal his decision or to set him free.

Duffin wrote in his 91-page decision that the prosecutor’s investigators made false promises to Dassey during multiple interrogations.

“These repeated false promises, when considered in conjunction with all relevant factors, most especially Dassey’s age, intellectual deficits and the absence of a supportive adult, rendered Dassey’s confession (which was later recanted) involuntary under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments,” Duffin wrote.

He added that “based on its review of the record, the court acknowledges significant doubts as to the reliability of Dassey’s confession. Crucial details evolved through repeated leading and suggestive questioning and generally stopped changing only after the investigators, in some manner, indicated to Dassey that he finally gave the answer they were looking for.”

Indeed, transcripts of the interrogations — conducted without a parent or legal counsel present — show exactly that, with the investigators telling him repeatedly that they are on his side and that they knew all the details of the murder, but just needed Dassey to tell them.

Dassey’s accounts varied widely, with investigators prompting him until they got answers that squared with their narrative. In one sequence, Dassey tells them Halbach was never in the garage on the property, then moments later says she was shot in her car inside the garage — and then says she was on the floor of the garage when she was shot.

One investigator affirmed that narrative and tells him: “That makes sense. Now we believe you.”

Through it all, Dassey clearly buys into the veiled promises of his interrogators that if he is honest, he will be set free. He is so apparently clueless as to the import of his confession that, at the end, he asks his interrogators: “Am I going to be (back) at school before school ends?”

Told, instead that he is being arrested, he asks: “Is it only for the one day, or ...”

What is remarkable about Dassey’s case is that state courts did not countenance appeals on his behalf. A coerced or guided confession from a young, mentally challenged boy is not something we expect from our criminal justice system. Yet the Wisconsin State Supreme Court declined to take it up.

So where does the state go from here? The most likely scenario is that the state will appeal Duffin’s decision, because prosecutors never like to give up a conviction. It is highly unlikely they will go back to court to retry Dassey, because they would have to do so without his recanted confession. There is little or no physical evidence connecting him to Halbach’s murder.

The other option is to set Dassey free — and the state should give that choice serious consideration.

Avery will still be behind bars and – barring some new exculpatory evidence, which his appeals lawyer has promised and may come in an appeals filing this month – he will stay there. Dassey never testified at his uncle’s trial and his release would not affect Avery’s case.

We would like to see this sordid, heinous piece of Wisconsin history put in the past, but that seems unlikely any time soon.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Rare Chance for Mercy on Texas’ Death Row

The following editorial was published by the New York Times on August 18, 2016.

When it comes to capital punishment, there is not much official mercy to be found in the state of Texas.

As 537 death row inmates were executed there over the last 40 years, only two inmates were granted clemency. The last commutation to life in prison occurred nine years ago, when Gov. Rick Perry, despite his formidable tally of 319 executions, chose to make an exception and spare a man convicted of murder under the state’s arcane and patently unfair “Law of Parties.”

This law in effect holds that someone waiting outside at the wheel of a getaway car deserves the same capital punishment as his associate inside who shoots and kills a store clerk. This is the rough equation that now finds Jeffrey Wood on death row in Texas, 20 years after his involvement in just such a crime. The actual killer was executed in 2002; Mr. Wood faces execution next Wednesday as a somehow equally culpable party, unless the state commutes his sentence to life in prison.

The Law of Parties has been on trial as much as Mr. Wood has in the arduous criminal justice process in which he faces death. With an I.Q. of 80 and no criminal history, Mr. Wood, who was 22 then, was initially found by a jury to be incompetent to stand trial. But the state persisted, and he was convicted in a slipshod proceeding in which no mitigating evidence or cross-examination was attempted in his behalf during the crucial sentencing hearing.

Mr. Wood bizarrely demanded to represent himself, but was ruled incompetent as a counsel — yet not as a defendant. He maintained he was forced at gunpoint into being a robbery accomplice. As the case ground forward, a federal judge stayed the last scheduled execution date in 2008 because of Mr. Wood’s repeatedly eccentric behavior.

The theory underpinning the Law of Parties — that an accomplice deserves to die even though he did not kill the victim — has been abandoned as difficult to apply if not unjust in most state jurisdictions in recent decades. It holds that an accomplice should have anticipated the likelihood of a capital murder and deserves the ultimate penalty. Since the death penalty was restored in 1976, there have been only 10 executions in six states under accomplice culpability laws, in which defendants did not directly kill the victim, according to Texas Monthly. Five of them have been in Texas. Jared Tyler, Mr. Wood’s lawyer, who specializes in the state’s death row cases, says he has never seen a sentence of execution “in which there was no defense at all on the question of death worthiness.”

This is just one of many grounds for the clemency that four dozen evangelical leaders have recommended to avoid a gross injustice. The state parole board would have to make this recommendation, with the final decision by Gov. Greg Abbott, who has not granted clemency in 19 executions.

The Law of Parties stands as a grotesque demonstration of how utterly arbitrary capital punishment is. The only true course for justice in Texas is for the law to be scrapped and Mr. Wood’s life to be spared.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

An Innocent Prisoner’s Will To Be Free

The following post by Lorenzo Johnson was published by the Huffington Post on August 15, 2016.

At the age of 22, I was caught up in the wave of mass incarceration and wrongfully convicted of murder. This took place in a state I wasn’t from or and where I had no family.

I had dropped out of school at an early age, so when I entered the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, my reading and writing level were so low that I was to attend Adult Basic Education classes.

I remember my first time going to the prison law library. I informed the clerk who was assisting prisoners that I was innocent and needed help. He gave me a look like he had heard my story a hundred times before, and then he gave me a book entitled Pennsylvania Criminal Rules and Procedures. This book was at least 500 pages. I took this book and sat down at the table with it. I couldn’t even read it, let alone understand it. I sat at this table sad, mad, and very embarrassed.

I went on to study for my GED. I eventually passed the test. I couldn’t afford the college courses that were available, so a friend let me study his books once his semester was over. Once I got the money I enrolled. A fire was lit within me. I began to realize how I had been taken advantage of due to being illiterate. I returned to the prison law library to study. Not only was I studying the law, I began studying my case file—at least, the incomplete case file I was given. I literally had gotten sick uncovering how my constitutional rights were not only violated but disregarded as if I wasn’t a human being.

By this time, the same court-appointed attorney who represented me at my trial was also representing for my direct appeal. Unfortunately, once my direct appeal was denied, I no longer had a lawyer. I could not afford to hire my own attorney. I’ll never forget sitting in the prison cell with nowhere else to turn. I looked in the mirror and told myself, “The time is now. You can do it.”

I had a one year time frame to file my Post Conviction Relief Act (P.C.R.A.) Petition. If I did not make this deadline, I would forfeit my right to argue my innocence. By this time, I was enrolled in a business education class that also taught typing. At this point, because I had no lawyer, I was officially representing myself. Ten months later, I filed my P.C.R.A. Petition to the courts pro se—by myself. I was granted an evidentiary hearing and was appointed an attorney to represent me.

This attorney abandoned me after my appeals were denied and never even contacted me when my last appeal was denied—I only found out about it months later. This almost caused me to lose my appeal rights. Once again I began representing myself. I had come to the conclusion that no one would fight for my innocence harder than me. That being said, as I continued my fight and I also reached out to hundreds of Innocence Projects and attorneys for help.

My appeals were running out. I was down to my last round of federal appeals. I had to deal with the reality that—if I were to lose—I would die in prison an innocent man.

I went on to file my federal habeas corpus appeal pro se. I gave it all I had. I had to deal with the fact that the prosecution withheld evidence of my innocence and never turned it over to me or any of my previous attorneys.

A well respected attorney came to my aid by the name of Michael Wiseman. He believed in me and my innocence. Mr. Wiseman and his team accepted my case on a pro bono basis. He amended my appeal and adopted the issues I raised pro se.

After sixteen and a half years in prison for a crime I was innocent of, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals vacated my sentence on the grounds of insufficient evidence—which is equivalent to a “not guilty” verdict—and ordered my immediate release, barring a retrial. I was released and reunited with my family.

But my experience of justice and happiness was short-lived and lasted a mere 148 days. The prosecutor in my case appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reinstated my conviction in a single day and denied my attorneys the right to file briefs or make oral arguments. I had to return to prison just months after being exonerated.

After eighteen and a half years, my legal team finally got their hands on some of the missing pages of my case discovery that the prosecutors had never turned over. After all this time, we found out not only that the prosecution knew I was innocent from day one, but that they let false testimony go uncorrected from the start of my court proceedings all the way up to the Supreme Court.

I’m now heading back to court twenty years later. Hopefully, it will be once and for all. If not—I will NEVER stop fighting to prove my innocence. I’m one of MANY innocent prisoners.

Lorenzo Johnson served 16 and a half years of a life-without-parole sentence until 2012, when the Third Circuit Federal Court of Appeals ruled there was legally insufficient evidence for his conviction. He remained free for four months, after which the US Supreme Court unanimously reinstated the conviction and ordered him back to prison to resume the sentence. With the support of The Pennsylvania Innocence Project, he is continuing to fight for his freedom. Though he does not have internet access himself, you can email his campaign, make a donation, or sign his petition and learn more at: http://www.freelorenzojohnson.org/sign-the-petition.html.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Dechaine's case highlights need for more reform

The following editorial was published by the Camden (Maine) Herald on July 28, 2016.

This week we end our series on the case of Dennis Dechaine, who was convicted in 1989 for the murder of 12-year-old Sarah Cherry. Without solid proof either way, his story forces us to consider the possibility of wrongful conviction.

Since DNA testing began, 342 people have been exonerated in the United States. None of these has been in Maine, possibly because of the restrictions on post-conviction review.

Evidence has mounted since Dechaine's conviction that points to his innocence, including testimony from forensic experts about the time of death occurring after Dechaine was picked up by police, discrepancies between detectives' trial testimony about Dechaine’s alleged admissions and their notes on those statements, and statements implicating potential alternate perpetrators with histories of sexual assault — we found statements to police from 2004 implicating two more sex offenders in a review of the case files on Monday.

The evidence against Dechaine has been repeatedly called "mountainous," "voluminous" and "substantial" in denials of his appeals. But it can all be explained by his contention that he was framed. The state has not taken that argument seriously enough to rebut it. Is it inconceivable that a killer would plant items at the scene implicating another person?

Many have argued that after numerous proceedings and denials, Dechaine and his supporters should lay the case to rest. But those denials were based on the technicalities of the post-conviction review and DNA statutes, a narrow interpretation of which allows only DNA evidence to be admitted in court hearings.

While Dechaine has been locked up, the state has blocked any new evidence from coming before a jury in two ways that also illustrate a double standard at work in this case.

First, the state destroyed all the DNA evidence associated with the case — the one codified way for a convict to prove his innocence — as part of a routine cleaning. This has seriously hindered Dechaine's ability to get a new trial. The only DNA evidence that remained was blood on a thumbnail clipping. Tests excluded Dechaine as a source, but the blood could not be definitively connected to the crime. Further attempts by the defense to scrape Cherry's clothing for bits of DNA 25 years after the murder yielded only degraded strands. A technician from the lab that did the DNA analysis said at a hearing the DNA obtained from the clothing items was “of low quality,” leading to "confusing interpretations" and “inconclusive results.”

Dechaine had been denied the chance to test the actual biological evidence connected to the crime — when it was still available — because of testimony on the low likelihood of getting good results. But when inconclusive test results of low-quality, degraded DNA appeared not to rule out Dechaine (1 in 374 Caucasian men could be a source), that was used against him as a reason to deny him a new trial.

Second, the state successfully moved to dismiss Dechaine's 1995 petition for a new trial by invoking a statutory amendment written by the Attorney General's Office allowing a petition to be dismissed on technicalities deemed to put the state at a disadvantage. The state made the dubious claim that a former defense lawyer had spread rumors of Dechaine’s guilt. Because that lawyer had recently suffered a stroke and could no longer testify, the state claimed a disadvantage.

The courts accepted these allegations as reasons to dismiss the petition, yet in Dechaine's 1992 hearing for a new trial, they rejected testimony regarding out-of-court statements implicating an alternative suspect as "hearsay."

State workers revisit the case with a certain weariness, while high-ranking officials have lashed out at those who insist Dechaine is innocent. Former Attorney General Michael Carpenter wrote in a letter to two Dechaine supporters, “I have never seen a case in which I have been more persuaded of a defendant’s guilt. The matter is simply not open to rational debate.”

Former Attorney General William Stokes wrote in a letter that Dechaine's claim of innocence was "bogus" and that his timing of the filing of his petition for post-conviction review was a “transparent and cynical” attempt to disadvantage the state.

Attorney General Janet Mills in a misleading letter to the Portland Press Herald in February said, “DNA evidence has been exhaustively analyzed at Mr. Dechaine’s request, but the results do not help him."

No court reviewing this case has acknowledged that the state's routine destruction of biological evidence is the reason Dechaine's post-conviction review process is spinning in circles. His chances for freedom, if he is innocent, have been hanging on the thumbnail clipping of a 12-year-old girl and a few threads from her shirt.

The unfolding of this case over the past 28 years has highlighted a number of ways convictions can be uncertain, and has prompted several changes to Maine law to help counteract that uncertainty: confessions must now to be recorded, for one example.

Our legislators should take another look at the post-conviction review statute and add provisions recommended by the Innocence Project: Courts should be allowed to vacate convictions or grant a new trial — where all the evidence can be heard — when DNA evidence of a case has been destroyed.

The following editorial was published by the South Bend (IN) Tribune on July 28, 2016.

As the presidential contest kicks into high gear with Indiana Gov. Mike Pence on board as the Republican vice presidential nominee, a smaller, less visible but meaningful campaign is being waged.

The effort seeks justice — in the form of a pardon from Pence — for a man wrongly convicted in an attempted murder and robbery in Elkhart 20 years ago.

As detailed in a recent Chicago Tribune story, more than two years ago, the Indiana Parole Board recommended that Pence issue a pardon for Keith Cooper. Cooper was convicted and sentenced to 40 years for an October 1996 armed robbery in the apartment complex where he lived, during which a 17-year-old was shot in the stomach. After the Indiana Court of Appeals overturned his co-defendant’s conviction, Cooper was given the choice of being set free with the felony conviction on his record or facing a new trial. He chose to go home to his wife and three children.

That decision has affected his ability to secure a better living. And his name isn’t truly cleared.

With the help of a young man who was working on a lawsuit filed by Cooper’s co-defendant, Cooper has built a solid case for a pardon: The victims of the armed robbery recanted and identified photos of the two men who were actually implicated by the DNA evidence. Other witnesses in the apartment also signed affidavits recanting their testimony against Cooper. In a six-minute video that was part of Cooper’s petition before the Indiana parole board, the man who was shot during the robbery urged the board to correct his grave mistake.

And here’s what Michael A. Christofeno, the original trial prosecutor, said in a letter to Pence earlier this year: “Justice demands that Mr. Cooper be pardoned. We cannot undo the wrongful imprisonment of Mr. Cooper, but we can undo his wrongful conviction with a pardon.”

If granted, legal experts say it would be the state’s first exoneration they can recall through a gubernatorial pardon based on innocence.

Conventional wisdom says that the governor, who didn’t act in the case before he was in such a bright national spotlight, isn’t likely to do so in the midst of a presidential campaign. A communication consultant expert quoted in an Associated Press story says approving at this time would be a distraction. In that article, Fran Watson, a clinical professor of law at Indiana University McKinney School of Law, says she doesn’t expect a pardon before the election but adds that Pence has “got this really good opportunity to do the right thing without anyone objecting.”

The victims, prosecutor and parole board have spoken. Now it’s past time for Gov. Mike Pence to act, to take this really good opportunity to do what is right.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Bad tests, wrongful convictions and justice denied

The following editorial was published by the St. Louis (Missouri) Post-Dispatch on July 16, 2016.

Police in many states, including Missouri, increasingly are using mobile drug tests to perform spot checks during traffic stops. The kits can produce the wrong result in as many as one out of three instances. Americans of all racial and income backgrounds should shudder at the injustices dealt to law-abiding citizens.

Thousands of people may have gone to jail as a result of wrong test results. Arrest and conviction records follow them for the rest of their lives. Yet police officers continue to use the kits.

The New York Times and ProPublica recently reported on the extraordinary rate of “false positives” returned by test kits marketed to police under brand names such as Serchie Nark II. Different kits test for cocaine, marijuana, opioids or methamphetamine.

When a chemical mixture turns a certain color during the test, it signals to police officers that an illegal drug could be present. But the test used for cocaine also can return the same positive color for 80 other compounds, including acne medications and several types of household cleaners.

The high rate of false positives offers more than ample reason to question their continued use. Manufacturers like Serchie now warn that the results should be treated only as preliminary, and more thorough lab tests are required.

The case of Amy Albritton offers a stark example of how quickly such tests can ruin a life. She and a friend were driving to Houston from her home in Louisiana in 2010 when an officer pulled her car over. He asked permission to search her car and came up with a single, white crumb from the floor. His test kit returned the positive color for cocaine.

Thus began Albritton’s nightmare of arrest and negotiations with a prosecutor while she insisted she had not possessed illegal drugs. The result was a plea bargain that left a felony conviction on her record, discoverable whenever she applied for a job or to rent an apartment.

The test was wrong. The crumb, a subsequent test proved, was just a dried-up bit of food.

Years later, the Harris County district attorney’s office admitted the error, but it came far too late for her to recover her shattered life — lost job, lost apartment, a custody battle for her child.

In Houston, 59 percent of those wrongfully convicted because of faulty test kits were black, even though they constitute only 24 percent of the population. It usually requires money and lawyers to get false convictions expunged, and that’s where these injustices reap their biggest toll.

The presumption of innocence forms the basis of our judicial system. A highly flawed commercial field testing system must never be allowed to short-circuit the rights of law-abiding citizens.