Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Editorial: Justice restored by university volunteers

The following editorial was published by the Dallas Morning News on October 27, 2009.

DNA speaks an unshakeable truth. It seals the fate of the guilty and, most profoundly, gives liberating testimony for those who suffer injustice.

But who speaks the truth about injustice when DNA evidence is nowhere to be found?

For two innocent Dallas men who entered prison 12 years ago, freedom came only through the commitment of volunteer, university-affiliated investigators who followed their instincts.

Newly freed Chris Scott and Claude Simmons said last week that their faith in God sustained them in the face of their hideously unfair life sentences for a robbery-murder they did not commit.

The UT-Arlington Innocence Network and the UT-Austin Actual Innocence Clinic were the answer to their prayers. Both deserve the sense of satisfaction and fulfillment they enjoy today.

At UTA, the effort spanned three years and involved a half-dozen students enrolled in classes taught by Dr. John Stickels. They are titled, appropriately, Innocence 1 and Innocence 2.

The volunteers comb through written claims of innocence to find cases worth pursuing. Their senses told them that things weren't right with the Scott-Simmons cases, and the trail led them through stacks of documents and into prison interview rooms. Finally they had a presentation for the Dallas County district attorney's office, which agreed to reopen the case, as did the Dallas Police Department.

It's a credit to both prosecutors and cops that they allowed for the possibility of grave error in the matter, then invested resources in an effort that might lay bare their own inadequacies. But that's how people and organizations improve. Certainly, DNA technology has proved the criminal justice system far from fail-safe and, at times, even incompetent.

It's noteworthy that this latest reversal revealed faulty witness identification procedures by Dallas police. Most of Texas' nation-leading DNA exonerations involve cases with that same flaw. Every such revelation casts more shame on state lawmakers for failing to pass legislation to clean up slipshod police practices across the state.

Last week's release of Scott and Simmons means that two other suspects, now implicated, have escaped justice in the case for years.

It also leads to the disquieting question of what might have happened if Scott and Simmons had been sent to death row instead of prison for life. The crime for which they were convicted was a capital offense and could have resulted in executions.

Think of how easy it might have been. It took six minutes for a jury to decide Anderson's guilt at his trial in 1997. No biological material was available as evidence in the case, so DNA technology could provide no immunity to injustice. That is the case with the vast majority of crimes.

Based on the incidence of DNA exonerations, criminologists have devised formulas to estimate the number of unjust convictions in American courts. In Texas, which confines 150,000-plus prisoners, some educated guesses would put the number at several thousand people.

The numbers are debatable. The fact of widespread error is not.

Credit goes to those who are most troubled by intolerable flaws and who, for little or no personal gain, devote themselves to doing something about it.

Opinion | Editorial - An Unjust Prosecution

The following editorial was published in the Cornell Daily Sun on October 28, 2009.

Students at Northwestern’s graduate school of journalism are doing more than learning to write ledes, conduct interviews and blog. Instead, they have worked toward and succeeded at exonerating innocent inmates who have been wrongfully accused. But now, the group of students who take part in the Medill Innocence Project are being threatened by a demand by local prosecution to hand over information surrounding a current investigation.

As student journalists, we are appalled by the Cook County Circuit Court, which has demanded the grades, grading criteria, class syllabus, expense reports and e-mail messages sent by students in the course, according to The New York Times. By encroaching on the students’ independent investigation into the case of Anthony McKinney, who was charged with murder in 1978, the court is undermining the legitimacy of the project.

In this most recent investigation, the students exposed in a videotaped interview that a key eyewitness in McKinney’s trial had been beaten by the police during his testimony “until he made made up a story against Anthony McKinney,” according to the Innocence Project’s website. The students further identified a number of other leading suspects, including a convicted killer who admits to being present at the murder and upholds McKinney’s innocence. But prosecutors doubt the validity of the study and are taking extraneous measures to derail the project’s findings.

Prosecutors are alleging that the students may be motivated by grades and thus might be inclined to interview specific suspects who would suggest a suspect’s innocence. McKinney’s case is open and ongoing and thus, the information obtained by the students is critical evidence. But the success of the Innocence Project, which has spearheaded investigations that have led to the release of 11 wrongfully accused inmates since 1999, suggests that these students are doing this for more than a grade.

Those at Medill have proven that they are fulfilling the role of the journalist — student or professional. As their efforts are unjustly policed, we feel a more broad attack is being made on journalism as a whole. Rather than dig into and verify the information being revealed, the prosecution is attacking those doing the uncovering, posing an immediate threat to the dissemination of truth.

Professors’ syllabi and students’ grades are purely data of academic significance. That the prosecution is seeking to intrude into this realm proves that they have an alternative motive that goes beyond the scope of a criminal investigation.

By providing confidential material to the court, the student journalists run the risk of becoming “an arm of the government,” as stated by David Protess, director of the Medill Innocence Project. “It would destroy our autonomy,” Protess told The New York Times. “We function with journalism standards and practices to guide our work.”

We stand behind those involved in the Innocence Project and the more than 50 other groups that are part of the Innocence Network. Further, we condemn the Cook County Circuit Court for the threats they are posing all those out there seeking to uncover the truth.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Tribute to Pete Shellem, by Steve Drizin

It is with great sadness that I inform you all of the death of Pete Shellem. Pete Shellem was one of the finest investigative journalists I have ever encountered. Writing for the Harrisburg Patriot-News, in the middle of Pennsylvania, Pete’s work led to at least four exonerations.

He was at his best when he wrote about the problem of false confessions, a difficult issue for many in the public to understand. His work (and I mean his work not the work of lawyers) led to the exoneration of Barry Laughman, a mentally limited man who had confessed to murdering and raping his aunt. Shellem tracked down the DNA evidence to the refrigerator of a lab analyst at Penn State who had moved abroad; his writing pressured the judges and prosecutors to agree to testing which ultimately exonerated Laughman. Shellem’s brilliant work in Laughman is featured in True Stories of False Confessions (co-edited by Rob Warden and I). In another case, his investigative work helped to clear William Kelly, another man who falsely confessed before Kelly could be convicted. Both of these men were of low intelligence and had only a modicum of support for them in the community. They would still be in prison today if not for Pete’s work.

Pete often called me to discuss his investigations and frequently used me as a source as I began to develop some expertise in the area of false confessions. I recall these conversations well. Pete was on fire, firing questions at me that revealed not only a tremendous knowledge of police investigations and police misconduct, but also a tenacity that almost made me feel sorry for those who he would soon take to task for their roles in these wrongful convictions. I can honestly say he taught me much more than I taught him. It’s a terribly sad day for his loved ones but also a sad day for the criminal justice system in Central Pennsylvania and for the Innocence Movement as a whole.


Editor's Note: Truth in Justice proudly maintains Pete's investigative reports regarding the cases of Barry Laughman, Steven Crawford, Jay Smith, Patti Carbone, William Kelly, David Gladden and Ted Dubbs. Use our site search engine on the main page to locate these articles. Read Pete's own commentary on the Dubbs case HERE to get a glimpse into the kind of man Pete Shellem was.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Guest Shot: Jaded Justice

The following editorial was published in the Washington Post on October 19, 2009.

Jaded justice
Reexamining a Bush-era policy on plea bargains and DNA

ON ITS FACE the proposition seems reasonable enough: Anyone who pleads guilty to a federal crime must give up the right to use DNA evidence in the future to challenge that conviction. This Bush-era policy would work just fine in a perfect world, where only those who actually committed crimes pleaded guilty to those offenses.

But the facts show that this is not always the case. Defendants sometimes cop to a plea for reasons having nothing to do with guilt. Some are coerced or intimidated into a confession and subsequent plea bargain. Others accept a plea offer if it provides for a much lighter sentence than could be expected if convicted at trial. In short, not everyone who pleads guilty is guilty -- and prosecutors understand this.

Yet according to The Post's Jerry Markon, the Bush Justice Department lobbied strenuously during the early part of this decade against legislation to assure inmates of access to post-conviction DNA evidence that could prove their innocence. When the bill appeared on the verge of passing, the administration succeeded in jamming through a provision that allows defendants to waive that right. Prosecutors in the Bush administration were then instructed to insist on such waivers when negotiating a plea bargain. While not all U.S. attorneys in the country went along, many routinely abided by the mandate, including federal prosecutors in the District and in Alexandria.

Attorney General Eric J. Holder Jr. has called for a reexamination of the Bush policy -- and rightly so.

DNA evidence has become an invaluable tool in the criminal justice system, providing prosecutors, defendants and victims with more certainty about guilt or innocence. The technology has been used to prove the innocence of some 240 or so wrongly convicted people, including some who had entered guilty pleas and some who were sentenced to death. It has been used countless more times to put actual offenders behind bars.

It takes a special kind of callousness and disregard for the truth to insist that a defendant give up his rights to scientific tests that could definitively prove guilt or innocence.

Mr. Holder should rebuff this jaded approach to justice by throwing out the Bush policy as soon as possible.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Louisville (KY) Courier-Journal Editorial: A tardy exoneration

October 15, 2009

A tardy exoneration

The exoneration of Edwin Chandler, who served nine years in prison for a Louisville homicide 16 years ago that he did not commit, may be an instance of justice ultimately prevailing. But it is not affirmation that the legal system worked as it should or that it has overcome inherent shortcomings.

Indeed, Mr. Chandler should never have been convicted, or probably even prosecuted. The physical evidence — fingerprints on a bottle of beer, and ownership of a knit cap and sunglasses — could not be matched to him. A man who had been pumping gasoline outside the convenience store where a clerk was shot and killed insisted that Mr. Chandler was not the perpetrator, but police largely ignored him, and he was not called to testify at trial. The police interrogator assumed from the outset that Mr. Chandler was guilty. Mr. Chandler said police used scare tactics to coerce a false confession.

The wrongful prison sentence stripped years from Mr. Chandler's life that can never be returned. It also forces the shooting victim's family to relive a nightmare that should have been closed years ago. But the biggest tragedy is that cases such as this are not a rarity in the United States.

The Innocence Project, whose Kentucky branch handled the Chandler case, says on its Web site that there have been 244 post-conviction exonerations since the venture was begun in 1992 in affiliation with Yeshiva University. Mr. Chandler's conviction seems typical of the miscarriages of justice that the project addresses. Seventy percent of the wrongfully convicted defendants are racial minorities (Mr. Chandler is black), for example, and 40 percent of the cases result in the real perpetrator being identified (a repeat offender has been indicted for the Louisville murder).

In the face of such statistics, it is appalling that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that inmates in the six states that do not allow post-conviction access to DNA evidence cannot use federal civil rights laws to obtain advanced DNA testing. (The Chandler case was rectified based on fingerprints, but DNA produces most post-conviction reversals.)

The justice system is charged with getting things right — for the benefit of victims, defendants and society. The courts must recognize that this doesn't always happen, and do whatever it can, whenever it can, to prevent or reverse life-altering errors.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Paul Craig Roberts: How the Feds Imprison the Innocent

The following article was originally published on October 5, 2009 at

How the Feds Imprison the Innocent

by Paul Craig Roberts

Authors of serious books seldom have cause to celebrate, but Larry Stratton and I have two reasons to open the champagne. Crown Publishing, a division of Random House, has announced a second printing of the second edition of The Tyranny of Good Intentions, and the noted civil libertarian and defense attorney, Harvey Silverglate, has just published a book covering many of the same legal cases and vetting our conclusion that in the United States every American is in grave danger from unscrupulous prosecutors who target the innocent.

For two decades I have been attempting to make Americans aware that the danger to their liberty comes not from foreign adversaries, terrorists, or criminals, but from prosecutors, who have destroyed law as a shield of the innocent and turned law into a weapon against the innocent. The Tyranny of Good Intentions (the publisher’s title) documents how the legal principles that protect our civil liberties were eroded by prosecutors even before the Bush regime obliterated what remained of the Bill of Rights.

The struggle has been uphill, because neither the right-wing nor the left-wing is emotionally content with the facts that Stratton and I present. Conservatives tend to see civil liberties as liberal coddling devices for criminals and, today, for terrorists. Predisposed to "law and order," conservatives align with police and prosecutors. They object to accounts of police misbehavior and prosecutorial abuse as propaganda in behalf of the criminal class.

The left-wing tends to see law as a tool of oppression that "the rich" use to control the lower classes, and liberals fret that "the rich" get off by hiring good lawyers, while the poor and minorities are ground under. Consequently, leftists object to the demonstration that even the very rich, such as Michael Milken, Martha Stewart, and Leona Helmsley, and even law and accounting firms, are victims of wrongful prosecution. Confusing wealth with villainy, leftists cannot free themselves from the emotional predilection that a convicted rich person must have been so guilty that not even the best lawyers could get them off.

The Tyranny of Good Intentions had a second printing of a second edition because of word of mouth, not because of reviews. Neither the right nor the left objects to wrongful prosecution as long as the victim is a bête noire. Sir Thomas More’s question (A Man For All Seasons) – what will happen to the innocent if we cut down the law in pursuit of devils? – rings no warning among right or left.

With this point made, I have come not to praise myself and my coauthor, but to praise Harvey Silverglate. If The Tyranny of Good Intentions cannot convince you, then perhaps Three Felonies A Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent can, and, if not, then both together surely will.

The Tyranny of Good Intentions is a broad stroke. It demonstrates how each civil liberty has been eroded away. Prosecutorial abuse is one chapter in the book.

Silverglate’s Three Felonies A Day focuses on how federal prosecutors invent creative interpretations of statutes, sometimes creating new felonies out of vague language or thin air, felonies never legislated by Congress. Federal criminal law is today so vast and so poorly worded that Silverglate reports, truthfully, that each of us, every American, commits three felonies every day without knowing it.

Federal judges, an increasing number of whom are former federal prosecutors, permit the prosecution of Americans for crimes that the defendants did not know were crimes, crimes that never before existed until the federal prosecutor brought the charge. The invention of crimes by prosecutors violates every known legal principle in Anglo-American law. Yet, it has become commonplace. Defense attorneys, a group that also increasingly consists of former federal prosecutors, as Silverglate accurately reports, have lost confidence that it is possible to defend a client from a federal prosecution and see their role, not as the defense, but as negotiator of a plea bargain that reduces the charges and prison time of the defendant, no matter how innocent.

Silverglate shows that many of the plea bargains create precedents that prosecutors can exploit to trap more innocent victims.

The reader by now is asking why prosecutors would waste time on the innocent when there are so many real crimes. Silverglate provides conclusive answers. For example, politically ambitious federal prosecutors, such as Rudy Giuliani and William Weld, pick high-profile targets to frame in order to build name recognition for political careers. Giuliani picked Michael Milken and Leona Helmsley. Weld picked Boston mayor Kevin White. Giuliani went on to be Mayor of New York and a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. Weld went on to be a two-term governor of Massachusetts. Leura Canary, perhaps at the urging of Karl Rove, picked Alabama Governor Don Siegelman. Michael J. Sullivan picked Thomas Finneran, Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and so on.

From Silverglate’s book, the reader can learn how federal prosecutors manage their frame-ups of innocents. For a targeted city or state political figure, the prosecutor first hunts for a criminal act somewhere in the bureaucracy. Perhaps some low-level person has extorted a bribe for a permit. Once such a person is caught, he or she is told that charges will be dropped if information is given that can be used to implicate the mayor or Speaker of the House or governor. As federal district court judges now permit hearsay and uncorroborated testimony, a totally innocent high-profile person can be snared on the basis of testimony by a petty crook low in the bureaucracy.

This is the way America works today. Just as state and local police cannot stand up to the FBI, elected state and local officials are powerless in the face of their pursuit by corrupt federal prosecutors.

Silverglate himself was the attorney in some of the landmark cases that he reports. The reader, even one with the usual illusions and delusions that blind Americans to their predicament, will be scared by Silverglate’s documented account, case by case, of how easy it is in "freedom and democracy" America to frame the totally innocent.

In Silverglate’s concluding chapter, "For Whom the Bell Tolls," the answer is obvious even to a naïf: "It tolls for all."

Paul Craig Roberts, a former Assistant Secretary of the US Treasury and former associate editor of the Wall Street Journal, has been reporting shocking cases of prosecutorial abuse for two decades. A new edition of his book, The Tyranny of Good Intentions, co-authored with Lawrence Stratton, a documented account of how Americans lost the protection of law, has been released by Random House.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Guest Shot: No help for the innocent

The following editorial was published in the Detroit (MI) Free Press on October 8, 2009.

No help for the innocent

Freed after a wrongful conviction, ex-prisoners get no redress


Had DeShawn Reed been paroled from prison, instead of walking out under a court order, the state would have given him $75, a bus ride home, and maybe a little help finding a job or apartment. Instead, the wrongly convicted prisoner got nada, after serving eight years of a 20-year sentence for assault with intent to murder. Reed, 34, of Ecorse, who's unemployed and living with his disabled mother, wasn't even eligible for a boost from the Michigan Prisoner Re-entry Initiative.

In July, Wayne County Circuit Judge Patricia Fresard threw out the conviction of Reed and his uncle Marvin Reed for a 2000 shooting that left Shannon Gholston a quadriplegic. Gholston recanted his testimony, and the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School produced evidence that another man -- found dead with the gun that was used in Gholston's shooting -- was the shooter. On July 31, inmate number 376440 became a free man.

"At least someone should have apologized to my mother and kids," Reed, who had maintained his innocence in prison, told me last week. "I heard nothing from the governor, nothing from (Wayne County Prosecutor) Kym Worthy."

And nothing from the Michigan Department of Treasury.

Nearly 20 states now have laws granting compensation to people wrongly convicted. Even Texas, with an express lane to Death Row, pays $25,000 a year.

It's time this state did what politicians and the state Parole Board expect prisoners to do: Admit a mistake and own up to it.

A bill introduced by state Sen. Martha Scott, D-Highland Park, would bring Michigan in line with the federal Innocence Protection Act, which gives the wrongly convicted $50,000 for every year they were in prison. It would also make inmates with court-vacated convictions eligible for education benefits and court costs.

Wrongful convictions occur far more often than people realize, especially with Michigan's limp indigent defense system. Incontestable DNA or other compelling evidence reverses only a tiny fraction of wrongful conviction cases. Still, dozens of Michigan inmates have had convictions overturned, including the high-profile DNA exonerations of Kenneth Wyniemko, who served nine years for a rape he didn't commit, and Eddie Joe Lloyd, wrongly imprisoned for 17 years for rape and murder.

More are coming. The new Michigan Innocence Clinic may be the nation's sole innocence project that takes only non-DNA cases, said co-founder David Moran. The clinic is now pressing for the release of another prisoner, Karl Vinson, 54, who was wrongly convicted 23 years ago of rape.

Nothing can repay people for time spent in prison for a crime they didn't commit. Still, the government that carried out the injustice should help them get their lives back. The money acknowledges a wrong and gives much needed assistance to ex-inmates who have lost their assets and savings.

"Someone should pay," Reed told me. "It's really easy to go to prison for something you didn't do. Unless it happens to you or to someone you love, you don't think about it."

JEFF GERRITT is a Free Press editorial writer. Contact him at or 313-222-6585.

Guest Shot: 'Due process' often sends the innocent to jail

The following editorial was published in the Miami (FL) Herald on October 6, 2009.

'Due process' often sends the innocent to jail

By RONALD FRASER Guest Columnist

On paper at least, the Constitution's "due process" clause is the citizen's guarantee against wrongful conviction and imprisonment. But once inside a courtroom, all bets are off. Research shows that eyewitness misidentification, false confessions and government use of snitches as witnesses -- all part of due process -- too often put innocent people behind bars.

According to Innocence Project attorneys at the Cardozo School of Law in New York City, courts in 34 states have used DNA testing to reverse more than 230 criminal convictions and free wrongly convicted persons who, on average, spent 12 years in prison.

In Florida, 10 prior convictions have been nullified. The state's first reversal took place in 2000 but was too late to free Frank Lee Smith, who died of cancer in prison after serving 14 years for a murder he did not commit. In part, Smith was convicted based on eyewitness testimony that he was seen leaving the scene of the crime.

The latest reversal in Florida occurred in 2008 when, after serving 26 years in prison, William Dillon was cleared of a 1981 murder conviction. Prosecutors had used eyewitness testimony from a former girlfriend that placed Dillon at the crime scene and the testimony of a jailhouse snitch who said Dillon admitted guilt while in jail awaiting trial.

These cases expose serious breakdowns in America's justice systems. If the courtroom failures found in these cases are at work in all state and local justice systems, what good are constitutional guarantees?

Each year many thousands of cases are decided in which DNA evidence is not available as a technical check on the reliability of traditional evidence. In these cases a person's guilt or innocence may very well be determined by error-prone eyewitness testimony, unreliable forensic procedures, government snitches and false, self-incriminating statements often obtained under heavy duress.

"These DNA exoneration cases," says the Innocence Project, "have provided irrefutable proof that wrongful convictions are not isolated or rare events, but arise from systemic defects that can be precisely identified and addressed."

Eyewitness misidentification testimony was a factor in 74 percent of post-conviction DNA exoneration cases, making it the leading cause of these wrongful convictions. And two in five of these eyewitness identifications involved cross-racial identification. Studies have shown that people are less able to recognize faces of a different race than their own.

Traditional eyewitness identification procedures are known to give unintended clues that result in misidentifications. The project recommends using double-blind lineups, where neither the witness nor the lineup administrators know the suspect.

Invalidated forensic evidence played a role in about 50 percent of the wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA testing. Unlike DNA testing, which is based on solid scientific research, according to the project, other forensic techniques used in courtrooms, such as hair microscopy, bite-mark comparisons and shoe-print comparisons have never been subjected to rigorous scientific evaluation.

In addition to the need to validate all forensic techniques scientifically, the technicians using techniques that are already validated, such as blood typing, need to be well trained to ensure that test results are accurate.

False confessions lead to wrongful convictions in approximately 25 percent of the cases, many involving defendants under 18 years of age or younger or developmentally disabled persons. To prevent coercion and to provide an accurate record, all police interrogations should be electronically recorded, says the project. In homicide cases, the states of Illinois, Maine and New Mexico already require taping of interrogations.

Snitches contributed to wrongful conviction in 16 percent of the cases. Snitch testimony is unreliable because it may be offered in return for deals, special treatment or the dropping of charges. All communications between snitches and prosecutors should be recorded and judges should instruct juries that snitch testimony is unreliable.

Governments exist to protect the rights of individuals. But when federal, state and local government prosecutors and judges knowingly tolerate judicial processes that violate the constitutional rights of citizens they, themselves, become rights violators.

Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington- based civil liberties organization. E-mail:

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

wrongful-convictions: Man convicted in bombing dies in wreck 1 month after his release

wrongful-convictions: Man convicted in bombing dies in wreck 1 month after his release

Guest Shot: Why Wrongful Convictions Must Decrease

Why Wrongful Convictions Must Decrease
by Adrienne Carlson

It’s worse when an innocent person is convicted than when a guilty one is let free, as any victim of a wrongful conviction will tell you. When you know in your heart that you’re innocent, when the system has worked against you simply because you were unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, you feel a burning sense of anger and helplessness at the criminal justice system that ruined your life. Wrongful convictions are now being overthrown with the surfacing of new evidence, mainly where DNA is available and can clear innocent people of crimes they had been convicted for when forensic science was not as developed as it is now.

While the guilty must be punished, the innocent must not be convicted, and the number of wrongful convictions must decrease because:

• They let the guilty party get away: This is the worst side effect of wrongful convictions – when an innocent person is convicted, it automatically implies that the one guilty of the crime goes scot-free. This allows him or her to continue to perpetrate crimes and bringing disaster to the lives of many others. When law enforcement officers let down their guard thinking that they have the guilty person, the one who actually committed the crime becomes emboldened to continue to hurt more innocent people.

• They ruin lives: The conviction of an innocent person is devastating for the victim and their family. Their entire lives are changed; for the victim, a life in jail is torture and sheer misery – he or she is not used to the rigors of the system and are broken mentally and physically by the time they complete their sentence or are released for good behavior or by new evidence which helps in their exoneration. As for the families, they are treated as outcasts by society and are shunned in their social and other circles. Their lives are never the same again, and even if the victim is exonerated, in the eyes of society, he or she is branded a criminal for life.

• They erode confidence in the legal system: When wrongful convictions happen, they decrease the confidence that the public has in the legal and criminal justice system. People start to believe that the system is deficient and full of faults; they are hesitant to report crimes and other offenses because they do not believe in the ability of the law enforcement officers to bring the right person to book.

• They dilute the authority of law enforcement officers: Most wrongful convictions happen because of cops and other law enforcement officers who do not do their job correctly and are misled by evidence that points to the wrong person. All they are interested in is convicting someone, and to them, it need not be the guilty party. Others are guilty of not investigating enough to find the real criminal. This dilutes their standing as authoritative figures in the public eye, and the entire community of law enforcement takes a beating.

This guest article was written by Adrienne Carlson, who regularly writes on the topic of forensic scientist schools. Adrienne welcomes your comments and questions at her email address:

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Charlotte (NC) News & Observer Editorial

The following editorial was published in the Charlotte (NC) News & Observer on October 6, 2009.

Not pretty

A $3.9 million settlement by the SBI and its insurance companies may offer lifetime security for Alan Gell, a Bertie County man (he's now 35) who was charged with murder in 1995, sentenced to death, and then acquitted in a new trial in 2004. But the Gell case itself cast disturbing clouds over a justice system that managed to put Gell's life in jeopardy because of what appears to be seriously flawed investigative work on the part of the State Bureau of Investigation and prosecutors too eager to obtain a conviction.

Those prosecutors, David Hoke and Debra Graves of the state Attorney General's Office, were reprimanded by the State Bar for withholding evidence and not reading their files. A suit by Gell against the prosecutors was dismissed because they enjoyed absolute immunity under the law.

SBI investigator Dwight Ransome, however, was seen by his attorney to be at risk in a suit, and so a settlement was made.

The News & Observer's Joseph Neff, whose 2002 series, "Time of Death," on the murder of retired truck driver Allen Ray Jenkins and Gell's wrongful conviction in that murder helped to bring about the new trial, reported last week on the settlement and then on Ransome's conduct of the investigation. It was not a pretty picture.

Ransome, who joined the SBI in 1983, has conducted more than 50 murder investigations, including the Jenkins case. The victim, a former truck driver known for wild parties and trading drugs for sex, was killed in April of 1995 in Aulander, a Bertie town in northeastern North Carolina.

Ransome pegged Gell for the crime based on what two teenage girls said at the time. The testimony of one of them was the only evidence that supposedly tied Gell to the murder.

What didn't tie him to the slaying were statements from 17 other witnesses who said they had seen Jenkins alive after the date Gell was alleged to have killed him. That was important, because Gell was either in jail or out of state on the days these witnesses said they'd seen Jenkins. Despite those statements, Ransome, who is still with the SBI but no longer conducting investigations, pressed on. Gell was tried and convicted.

The investigation was sloppy by a veteran SBI agent, and that's disturbing. Prosecutors did not cover themselves in glory, and that's equally disturbing. But most disturbing of all, in terms of seriously calling into question the fairness of the justice system, is that Alan Gell might have been put to death by the state. (He's now in prison serving time for having sex with a 15-year-old girlfriend.)

The way this case was handled was disgraceful, but what might have been a grave outcome amplifies the magnitude of mistakes made and frankly demands a vast review of other investigations in which Ransome might have been involved.

Alan Gell might have been a troubled young man, but he didn't deserve to die for a crime for which all sorts of doubts as to his guilt were in play. The district attorney of Bertie County has since said he probably would not have ever charged Gell if he'd known about all the evidence in his favor.

For state officials, including Attorney General Roy Cooper, the financial settlement should not be the end of this. Not if he and others involved in the case, and in other cases ongoing all over the state, wish to restore confidence in the system and their own credibility.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Houston Chronicle Editorial: Bad Smell

The following Houston Chronicle editorial was published on September 30, 2009.

Bad smell

We love dogs, but we have our limits. We don't think they should be allowed to vote, hold public office or provide court testimony.

The problem is, that last bit — the part about court testimony — isn't a joke. Like most other states, Texas allows its courts to use evidence from “scent lineups,” in which dogs supposedly match a suspect's scent to items found at a crime scene.

A new report by the Innocence Project of Texas shows that scent lineups don't pass the smell test. Whether accidentally or on purpose, it's easy for handlers to cue eager-to-please dogs to give whatever answer the handler wants. Experts say that rigorously trained dogs, working under perfect conditions, are right only about 85 percent of the time. And because so few dog-and-handler teams could perform the lineups successfully, the National Police Bloodhound Association no longer teaches dog handlers how to do them.

The Innocence Project proclaims scent lineups “junk science,” and in some depth, the report describes the career of dog handler Keith Pikett, a deputy with the Fort Bend County Sheriff's Department who's done scent lineups all over Texas.

The report tells a disturbing story. Earlier this year, based on scent matches from Pikett's dogs, a man was charged with rape and robbery in Yoakum County — but DNA evidence later cleared him. After a 2006 Pikett scent lineup, a man was named the prime suspect in a Victoria murder — but then someone else confessed to it. Yet another Pikett scent lineup following a 2007 string of Houston burglaries led to an incorrect arrest. Vic Wisner, the Harris County prosecutor in charge of that case, was so disgusted that he e-mailed other prosecutors to warn them about Pikett.

In relation to a recent lawsuit against Pikett, Bob Coote, formerly the United Kingdom's head of police-dog training, reviewed a tape of one of Pikett's scent lineups. Coote called it “the most primitive evidential police procedure I have ever witnessed.”

He added: “I could have been watching a comedy.”

We wish that he had been. Dogs doing human stuff can be hilarious. (Where would YouTube be without canine skateboarding?) But in a courtroom, their evidence isn't funny at all.