Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Guest Shot: With Execution, Let's Make Certain

Editorial originally published November 28, 2007 in the Tuscaloosa (AL) Times at

You would like to think that our government would take every step possible in advance of a legal execution to ensure that it was not taking the life of a person innocent of the crime.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court didn't see it that way. Instead, it refused Monday to reconsider DNA testing for Tommy Douglas Arthur, schedule to die Dec. 6 for a 1982 murder in Muscle Shoals.

Arthur's daughter said the court relied on a technicality in Alabama law that requires post-conviction challenges to be filed within a certain period of time. However, she points to the fact that Alabama does not provide attorneys for post-conviction appeals, leading Arthur to miss the window of opportunity to file a challenge based on lack of DNA testing.

Ah, the old Catch-22 of the death penalty in Alabama.

The state, needless to say, doesn't require DNA testing in murder cases.

Arthur may be guilty as charged, but his case poses enough questions to warrant a DNA test. Testimony of an eyewitness placed him 75 miles away from the murder. The victim's wife, who said she was raped, testified at first that Arthur was not the murderer. Later, she changed her story, claiming that Arthur killed her husband to let her collect on a $90,000 life policy.There was no physical evidence at his trial linking him directly to the crime.

With Arthur's execution pending, all of this is disturbing. Gov. Bob Riley, obviously bothered by the case, has asked a national organization, The Innocence Project, for information about DNA tests. The group is dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.

Riley has the power to delay Arthur's execution while conclusive DNA tests are done. He should do so.

We hope the governor ultimately advocates for mandatory DNA tests in Alabama murder cases. The absence of such a requirement is one of many unconscionable loopholes in the state's capital code.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Updated Message from Sherrie Stone, Daughter of Thomas Arthur

My father Thomas Arthur, Alabama death row inmate is scheduled for execution December 06, 2007. In spite of the United States Supreme Court ruling on lethal injection and it's constitutionality next year. In spite of most states delaying executions until the United States Supreme Court rules. With all this going on, the state of Alabama has scheduled Thomas Arthur's execution for next week 12-06-2007.

The real issue in his case is the fact that crime scene evidence was collected and still exists that the State of Alabama refuses to DNA test. Evidence that includes hair, semen, blood, shell casings and many other items. DNA testing of these items can prove that Thomas Arthur is innocent and was never at the crime scene. He has sat on death row for over 20 years for a crime he is innocent of.

In November of 2007, this month, Alabama Governor Bob Riley requested post-conviction DNA testing guide lines from the Innocence Project based in New York, run by Barry Scheck & Peter Neufeld. The Innocence Project sent the requested information and highly recommended that the Governor allow DNA testing in this case. However, the Governor has taken no further steps since receiving the information.

I have a web site dedicated to my father that has a copy of the letter the Innocence Project sent to Governor Riley. The web sit also has in depth case information and links to all the legal documents. Amnesty International has intervened, the Innocence Project has intervened and thousands of others all over the world. All parties have been denied a meeting with the Governor, including myself and my fathers attorneys. Matter of fact, I recently received a letter from the Governor that he had no intentions of staying the execution. A copy of that letter is on the web site.

My father currently has two motions in the United States Supreme Court, one on the DNA testing, and another on the lethal injection constitutionality. His attorneys are filing stays today in the United States Supreme Court. The Alabama Supreme Court has denied all current motions. Links to all motions filed are found on the media page of the web site. If you truly care about justice, you can find all the information at

Click HERE for the letter the Innocence Project sent to Governor Riley on November 05, 2007.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Refusing to Admit Error

Psychologists tell us that cognitive dissonance occurs when we have two ideas that are irreconcilably opposed – ideas such as "the defendant is guilty" and "DNA shows the defendant is innocent." We want to believe we are honorable, competent people. Cognitive dissonance causes mental anguish because it suggests we are neither honorable nor competent. This, say the experts, is the most powerful cause of denial and self-justification, which prompt us to dig in our heels and justify our original position in the face of strong, even crushing evidence that we are wrong.

Nowhere is denial and justification seen as often as in the criminal justice system which, in turn, is the single greatest barrier to reforming the criminal justice system. When Roy Criner was excluded by DNA three times, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller claimed Criner must have used a condom, and said that the young girl who was raped and killed was promiscuous, in direct contradiction of all evidence in the case. Earl Washington was similarly excluded three times by DNA in a rape and murder in Virginia, yet a series of Virginia Attorneys General continued to claim he was "not innocent." This disingenuous ploy leads to only one conclusion: Earl Washington must have raped the victim with another man’s sperm.

We have recently been treated–for lack of a better term–to denial and self-justification by prosecutors in three wrongful conviction cases in widely separated parts of the country.

In Buffalo, NY, Erie County DA Frank J. Clark is opposing a new trial for Lynn DeJac, who was convicted of strangling her 13-year-old daughter Crystallynn fourteen years ago. Clark maintains that DeJac is guilty, despite the fact that Dennis Donohue–the man DeJac has said all along killed her child–has been arrested for two similar stranglings, and his DNA was found in blood spots on the bed and wall in the child’s bedroom and in vaginal swabs taken from her body. When three Buffalo detectives publicly stated they believe DeJac is innocent, Clark was incensed. "It’s absolutely inappropriate for them to express an opinion on the issue of guilt or innocence," Clark fumed. Clark says there is no way to know when Donohue’s semen got inside Crystallynn. He implies that there was a consensual sexual relationship between Donohue and Crystallynn, and that there’s nothing unusual or wrong about that.

Half a continent away, in Lansing, MI, Ingham County prosecutor Stuart Dunnings, III joined Claude McCollum’s defense attorney, Hugh Clarke, Jr., in asking that McCollum’s rape and murder conviction be set aside when a serial killer, Matthew Macon, confessed to the crime McCollum was convicted of committing. So far, so good. But this prompted a closer look at the prosecution of McCollum: his "confession" was not a confession, he was excluded by DNA but tried anyway, and the prosecution withheld evidence that proved McCollum was in another location when the crime occurred. Dunning deflected questions about his ethics and an investigation by the Michigan Attorney General by pointing his finger in every direction but his own. McCollum’s defense attorney should have been able to figure out that the video showing McCollum was in a different building on the campus of Lansing Community College when Prof. Kronenberg was killed in her classroom was recorded at the same time the murder occurred. The presiding judge could have dismissed the charge instead of sending it to the jury. Dunning even wrote an op-ed piece published in the Lansing State Journal on October 27, 2007 blaming everyone but himself, and ignoring the fact that Dunning pursued McCollum’s prosecution even though he knew all of the facts concealed from defense counsel and the judge.

In Big Sky Country, Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath and Yellowstone County officials have borrowed a page from Virginia’s playbook. In 2002, when Jimmy Bromgard was cleared by DNA of the rape of an 8-year-old girl in her Billings, MT home, McGrath admitted the state had imprisoned an innocent man. In 2005, Bromgard filed a lawsuit against Montana, Yellowstone County and others, alleging his civil rights had been violated. Pivoting 180 degrees on a dime, McGrath now propounds scenarios to explain who might have left the semen (including the child’s father) while keeping Bromgard in the loop as "not innocent." Yellowstone County has yet another theory to keep Bromgard in the "not innocent" category. Acknowledging that Bromgard is innocent of raping the child, the County now suggests he burglarized the girl’s home the night of the assault.

So are these folks all suffering from cognitive dissonance? Are they honorable, competent men struggling to make sense of the terrible mistakes they made, trying to do the right thing long after they did the wrong thing?

No. Not one of them. Their motives are crass and self-serving. Their actions are despicable, and fit the definition of obstruction of justice: interference, through words or actions, with the proper operations of a court or officers of the court. Let’s take a closer look at each of these nay-sayers to see what motivates them.

In Buffalo, NY, David Clark insists that, even with the new DNA evidence and the similarities between the murder of Lynn DeJac’s daughter and two other women killed by Dennis Donohue, there is not enough evidence to get Donohue indicted. The truth is, Donohue can’t be prosecuted for Crystallynn’s murder because Clark gave him complete immunity in exchange for his testimony against DeJac at her trial. When it sinks in with the voters of Erie County, NY that the DA made sure there can never be justice for a child who was brutally raped and killed in her own bed, one would hope that Clark will be turned out of office.

So far, Ingham County, MI residents have only demanded to know why Stuart Dunnings, III took the prosecution of Claude McCollum forward knowing–as he demonstrably did–that McCollum was excluded by DNA and that he was nowhere near the crime scene when it happened. Remember, it was the confession of Matthew Macon to the murder of Prof. Kronenberg that led, rapidly, to the disintegration of the case against McCollum. Macon is a serial killer. During the time McCollum was being prosecuted and then began serving a life sentence for someone else’s crime, Macon killed five more people. Dunnings is in denial because sooner or later, the people of Ingham County will start asking how many of those five people would not have been murdered if Dunnings had not fostered a false sense of security by prosecuting McCollum.

The impetus for Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath’s about-face is money. It’s one thing to acknowledge the obvious, that an innocent man spent 15 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, but it’s quite another to compensate him. Bromgard went to prison when he was 18 years old. For nearly half his life, he was a target for other inmates who wanted to beat up a child molester. Bromgard had a terrible, terrible time. While other young men his age went to college, got married and had careers, Bromgard was cutting license plates. No amount of money can repay him for the years stolen by his wrongful conviction. But McGrath–on behalf of the State of Montana–doesn’t want to give Bromgard any money. So he grasps at irrational straws to keep Jimmy Bromgard in the "not innocent" loop. And he tries to do it on the hush-hush. After the Chicago Tribune published McGrath’s "not innocent" theories given at deposition, lawyers for the state asked the court to seal all case documents and issue a gag order to squelch the bad publicity. The court refused those requests and the case remains open to the public. That means the people of Montana can see what their AG is up to, and they can act accordingly.

Clark, Dunnings and McGrath are not honorable men struggling to come to grips with the terrible consequences of a legal system that can and does crush the innocent. They have betrayed the trust placed in them, and they should be held accountable by the people they are supposed to be serving.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Guest Shot: New policies are needed to halt unjust convictions

by Katherine Ramsland

This opinion originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Nov. 4, 2007.

Katherine Ramsland teaches forensic psychology at DeSales University

When the U.S. Supreme Court mandated the Miranda warning in 1966, it did so to protect the public against coerced self-incrimination. But some law-enforcement agencies resisted. They said that articulating those rights hampered their ability to get confessions and released more criminals on technicalities. In other words, if an arresting officer forgot the warning or failed to notice that the subject was not competent enough to waive protected rights, the case could be tossed.

Now we are seeing a host of new policy changes on the horizon. These changes will help minimize false convictions. And again, we see resistance from the very people who should care most about justice for all. It is almost as if the law-enforcement establishment believes it is more important to convict and then let the system sort it out. But those who believe this have not fully grasped the harm some current procedures have perpetrated on the innocent. Law enforcement should welcome - not reject - changes designed to protect.

The main problem is that many innocent people have been convicted. The number we know of is very large, and - given the problems discovered with formerly accepted legal procedures and certain types of evidence - it stands to reason that many more innocents are serving time or possibly have been executed.

Proposed changes in courts around the country directly address this issue. They include: improved procedures for the identification of suspects, including expanded use of DNA technologies; improved efforts to corroborate information given by informants or "snitches"; and higher standards for crime labs. Some long-enshrined procedures are now being reviewed with a newly critical eye. For example, research in psychology for more than a century has proven repeatedly that eyewitness testimony (a leading factor in false convictions) is fallible. Finally, officials are listening.

And yet there is still resistance in many law-enforcement circles.

Here are some sobering statistics from the Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. Since 1989, this group has freed 208 men via postconviction DNA analysis on biological samples from their supposed crimes. Fifteen were on death row, facing execution for something they did not do. The average length of time served was 12 years, with many in prison for more than two decades. The total number of known years served by the innocent is a staggering 2,563. And these are just the statistics for the small percentage of cases in which biological evidence was involved (and testable), and for which the overburdened personnel at the Innocence Project had time. They currently have tens of thousands of letters in their files from inmates begging for help.

Here's just one example of how the system broke down. In Texas, Roy Criner received a prison term in 1990 of 99 years for the rape and killing of a teenage girl. Later, he submitted to DNA testing, and the results excluded him as the rapist. The Texas Court of Appeals, however, ruled this evidence would have made no difference to the conviction, so he remained in prison.

Then a local reporter found more evidence of Criner's innocence. A cigarette butt, previously discounted, was tested for DNA. The test result proved that the person who had smoked it had been the rapist-murderer - and that this person was not Criner. After serving 10 years for a crime he did not commit, he finally was set free.

"It breaks you down." Those are the words of one exonerated convict in the documentary movie After Innocence. It features cases such as that of Nick Yarris, who spent 22 years on Pennsylvania's death row for murder. Even after he was freed, he could not persuade the prosecutor to send the DNA profile that had exonerated him to a national database to assist in identifying the real killer.

It is almost as if law enforcement does not want to identify and exonerate the innocent. Eight states do not yet mandate giving inmates postconviction access to DNA analysis. Five states defeated bills intended to change policies on eyewitness identification. The California State Sheriff's Association opposes bills that require officials to record interrogations and corroborate informant information; the purported fear is that such procedures would create loopholes for defense attorneys to exploit. This organization also opposes new procedures for suspect lineups. Research has revealed that witnesses, when asked to pick from lineups, make comparisons among those lined up, which can alter their memory. Or they may simply choose the one who "looks" criminal. (The recent study by the Chicago police department that "proved" that current methods worked just fine was significantly flawed.)

Even if the system releases the innocent, it sometimes seems to wish to punish them somehow anyway. The conviction records of many exonerated individuals are not expunged, making it difficult for them to find employment and even a place to live. Their most productive work years are lost, and they can expect little or no assistance with integration back into the community. A few have received payouts from successful lawsuits, but most have nothing. Some say it was easier for them in prison.

It seems that some of our sworn protectors would rather protect themselves. Why else would they resist policy changes arising from verified harm? These system failures ought to disappoint law-enforcement personnel, as they did Gov. George Ryan in Illinois. Upon learning that 13 men on Illinois' death row had been exonerated, Ryan commuted the sentences of all death-row inmates because he recognized that changes were needed.

The English jurist William Blackstone famously said: "Better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer." Apparently that's literary fluff to some people. They should talk to exonerated convicts. Of course, we should expect collateral damage within any human institution, but if we have identified ways to reduce it, we should utilize them. It is shocking that officials entrusted with public safety would worry more about technical slip-ups that might free a guilty person than about errors that repeatedly have victimized the innocent.