Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Rigging The Gold Standard

There used to be two evidentiary gold standards that assured conviction–eyewitness identification or a confession by the accused. It was even better if you had both. What juror could doubt a traumatized victim who pointed to the defendant and said, "That’s the person who did this to me. I will never forget!" Just as compelling was a copy of the suspect’s confession, initialed on each page, signed at the bottom, admitting to the terrible deeds in his or her own words. After all, no innocent person would confess unless it was true. And no police officer would lie about how the confession was obtained–right?

Then came DNA. It became the new gold standard. Over and over and over, DNA demonstrated, scientifically, objectively, irrefutably, that eyewitnesses are wrong (more than half the time, a chilling statistic), and that innocent people do confess to crimes they did not commit. And that some police officers will lie to get a confession (called T&D, Trickery and Deception, given a seal of approval by the U.S. Supreme Court), and that some police officers will lie, under oath, about getting a confession (called "testilying").

DNA cuts both way, of course. It seals a conviction just as convincingly as it frees the innocent. In Murdoch, Nebraska last year, lacking eyewitnesses, police doubled up–first the "old gold," a confession, and then the "new gold," DNA–in their prosecution of cousins Matt Livers and Nicholas Sampson for the April 17, 2006 murders of their relatives, Wayne and Sharmon Stock. With no real suspects, police brought in Matt Livers, who is mentally retarded, and grilled him for 18 hours. Livers finally confessed, although he had to be spoon-fed enough information to make the confession seem legitimate. And he implicated his cousin, Nicholas Sampson, and said the two of them went to the Stock home together in Sampson’s car.

Livers and Sampson were charged with murder and booked into the local jail. Sampson’s car was hauled off to impound. Between April 19 and April 27, Douglas County crime lab technicians swabbed the car's door handles, pedals, interior handles, buttons, floors and seats. Initially, they did not locate any blood or DNA evidence in the car. Somebody around the cop shop must have begun to worry about Livers’ confession–a confession that even the state’s expert agreed was almost certainly false. Crime lab technicians went back on May 8 and conducted a second search of Sampson’s car, using a wet swab, and found Wayne Stock’s DNA in the only place in the car that they tested. There. They had convictions sealed.

A fly dropped into the ointment two months later, however, when a ring found inside the Stock home led investigators to two Wisconsin teens, Gregory Fenster and Jessica Reid. The ring had been left in the car stolen by Fenster and Reid and used in a multi-state crime spree of farmhouse burglaries and car thefts. DNA evidence from the ring and a marijuana pipe also left at the Stock home belonged to Fenster and Reid. Wayne Stock’s DNA was found on Fenster’s shirt and Reid’s shoe, and Reid’s diary detailed the Stock murders. The two confessed but didn’t mention Sampson or Livers.

At first, police insisted Sampson and Livers must have been in on it with Fenster and Reid, but that kite wouldn’t fly. Charges against Sampson were dropped in October. Livers had to wait until December; charges against him were dismissed the day before a hearing that would have closely examined the circumstances of his confession.

On March 19, 2007, Fenster and Reid were sentenced to life in prison; Fenster got an extra 10 to 20 years for use of a weapon to commit a felony.

Cass County Nathan Cox said he has spoken to investigators from Cass County and the Nebraska State Patrol and does not think the blood got there as a result of accidental contamination on their part. Cox also said he has no information to suggest that one of the investigators engaged in misconduct by placing the blood there."If that were true, somebody would be subject to criminal prosecution," Cox said. "Who knows how this blood got there? Law enforcement is still trying to go through that process."

Indeed, somebody should be subject to criminal prosecution, because the only reasonable explanation for the presence of Wayne Stock’s blood in Nicholas Sampson’s car is that it was planted.

They got caught this time, the cops who badgered a retarded man into confessing to a crime he didn’t commit and implicating his cousin, and the crime lab technicians who planted DNA evidence to complete the frame-up of an innocent man. How many times do they get away with it?

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Early Death of (Another) Exoneree

Sally Clark, a British solicitor (lawyer) has died. She was only 42 years old. Sally lost two sons to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), then was convicted of murdering them and spent 3 years in prison before she was exonerated. Sally’s conviction was based on junk medical testimony by Sir Roy Meadow, whose statistical theories have been roundly debunked. Her husband Stephen, also a solicitor, never doubted her innocence and was pushed to the brink of bankruptcy to pay the huge legal bills for her appeals. Sally’s conviction was reversed and she was released in January, 2003, after further testing showed her son, Harry, died of a bacterial infection.

The cause of Sally’s death has not yet been determined, but regardless what clinical terminology is eventually written on the death certificate, "broken heart" has certainly been a factor. Sadly, death seems to stalk many exonerees, deaths described as "tragic" or "untimely." Ron Williamson of Ada, Oklahoma, subject of John Grisham’s book, "The Innocent Man," was sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit, exonerated, and then died at 51. Kenneth Waters of Cambridge, Massachusetts spent 18 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. His sister, Betty Anne Waters, went to law school in order to prove his innocence, and she did. He was exonerated and released in March of 2001. Six months later, Kenneth died in a tragic fall that fractured his skull. Dan Young, Jr. of Chicago, Illinois spent more than 12 years in prison for a rape and murder he did not commit. He was exonerated and freed in early 2005. Like Kenneth Waters, Dan Young had a sister, Betty Ray, who never wavered in her belief that he was innocent, and who worked tirelessly to obtain his release. In April of 2006, Dan was killed as he walked near their home by a driver who jumped the curb, struck him and fled the scene. Dan was 45 years old. There are still no suspects. It is another open wound for Dan’s sister.

All of these people suffered terribly, in their personal losses, in their wrongful imprisonment, in the often protracted battles they fought to prove their innocence, and in the hardships endured by the families who loved them and continued to believe in them. After all that, the taint of incarceration followed them home. "There must have been something to it, or they would not have convicted," people whisper among themselves. "You wouldn’t want a murderer living near you, would you? You wouldn’t want a murderer working for you, would you?"

And so the doors close, backs turn, and innocent people–people who have proven their innocence–are still imprisoned. "Their first 15 minutes of fame is exhilarating," says Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Cardozo Innocence Project. "But after that, these people experience depression, trouble getting a job, trouble getting simple things like clothes and housing and health insurance. They don't even get access to the programs that are available for parolees."

Perhaps my impression that many of these exonerees die soon after exoneration is only that, an impression, like Sir Roy Meadow’s statistics, unsupported by objective research. But the taint that sticks to exonerees is not imaginary, and it is something for which we are collectively responsible.

What can we, as individuals, do about it? These days, you don’t have to look far from where you live to find exonerees. Reach out to them, after the 15 minutes of fame is over. Rent to them, or help them find a place to live. Clothe them, from a store with your own money or from your own closet if you can’t afford to take them shopping. Give them hair cuts. Teach them skills. Hire them, or help them find jobs. Invite them to dinner or bring a casserole to their homes. Demonstrate to them that good people understand that they, too, are good people.

Because you never know how long they will be around for you to do it.