Sunday, April 25, 2010

When innocent verdicts still plague citizens

The following editorial was published in the Bradenton (FL) Herald on April 23, 2010.

Florida state law unjustly victimizes some criminal defendants by not allowing those found innocent to have their legal records expunged for at least a decade.

Even after 10 years, statutes require citizens to petition the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Then citizens found not guilty must survive background checks and meet certain criteria. Next, a judge must approve the expunge request.

Citizens can have case documents sealed after a not-guilty verdict, but arrest records remain. The negative ramifications can follow a person for years if not a lifetime. When potential employers perform a background check, an arrest record will show up — tainting that person’s opportunities. While the courts must presume innocence, employers can look askance at that information and reject a job prospect without citing the reason.

There are many good reasons to keep court records from being purged. Some defendants acquitted by juries are not innocent. Some might escape conviction on a legal technicality even though the evidence supports the prosecution. Law enforcement needs that background information to evaluate possible trends that might be valuable to future investigations.

Statutes do not allow records to be expunged by people with any criminal convictions, and while that sounds reasonable it is also unfair under certain circumstances. A person accused of murder but then discovered to have been misidentified as the case progressed cannot have the dropped charge expunged if his record holds any conviction, even for driving with a suspended license. That scenario played out in real life here with a client of Bradenton defense attorney Greg Hagopian. “It seems unfair,” Hagopian told Herald reporter Robert Napper for an article published earlier this month.
Unfair indeed. That clearly innocent citizen will face a lifetime of diminished prospects. Who would hire someone with a murder charge on their record?

This is a prime example that state law should hold exceptions to the tight restrictions on expunging criminal records. Citizens should not be forced to face the presumption of guilt after a jury finds them innocent.

Legislation that addresses these issues remains bottled up in Senate and House committees. Current law allows a person only one opportunity to expunge a record in their lifetime, and the House bill would expand that to two. The Senate bill allows expunction after a not-guilty jury verdict. Both measures should be enacted into law.

We urge lawmakers to pass these bills in the remaining days of the session.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Postcard Campaign to Free the West Memphis 3

by Natasha Sniatowsky
Arkansas Take Action- Free the 3!

Simply pick up any postcard (depicting your city/country), make your voice heard advocating for these INNOCENT MEN IN PRISON & slap a stamp on it!

In 1993, shortly after three eight-year-old boys were found murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas, police arrested Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. and charged the three teenagers with murder based solely upon an error-filled and police-coerced false confession, extracted from 16-year-old Jessie Misskelley Jr. After 12 hours of questioning, without counsel or parental consent, mentally disabled Jessie Misskelley repeated back to the police what he was told to say.

There was no physical evidence, no weapon, no motive, and no connection to the victims. Instead, prosecutors terrified and inflamed the shell-shocked community. Jessie Misskelley recanted his statement immediately upon being released to his family, stating that the police forced, via threat and the lure of money, the story he told, but it was too late. Misskelley, Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols, known as The West Memphis Three, were arrested—then convicted of murder.

Stunningly, Jason Baldwin, 16 at the time and a model student, was sentenced to life without parole; Jessie Misskelley got life plus 40 years, while Damien Echols was sentenced to death. Damien has spent 17 years in solitary confinement awaiting death by lethal injection for a crime neither he nor Jessie nor Jason had anything to do with.

The West Memphis Three have been wrongfully convicted for crimes they did not commit. But, crucial new evidence of their innocence has been uncovered including crime scene DNA that absolves the three young men and points to others. Some of the country's leading pathologists found that much of the forensic evidence presented to the jury, which helped convict the young men, was false and not consistent with the cause of neither death nor wounds found on the bodies.

Honorable Governor MIKE BEEBE
State Capitol 250
Little Rock, Arkansas 72201 (USA)

Attorney General DUSTIN McDANIEL
323 Center Street, Suite 200
Little Rock, Arkansas 72201 (USA)

Template: Governor Mike Beebe OR Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, It has come to my attention that there are three men imprisoned in Arkansas for crimes they had nothing to do with. There is serious reasonable doubt surrounding the convictions of Damien Echols (on death row), Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. I implore you to look into this matter today. Thank you for your time.

If you doubt their innocence, please look into this matter further But you cannot deny the reasonable doubt! Thank you in advance!

Let’s Free the 3!

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Protecting the Innocent

The following editorial was published in the Sarasota, Florida Herald Tribune on April 7, 2010.

Protecting the innocent
Panel would be an important step in preventing wrongful convictions

Sending innocent people to prison and keeping them there are among the worst mistakes government can make. It has happened at least a dozen times in Florida, by one group's count.

Florida could learn from those mistakes -- and, possibly, prevent them in the future -- if the Legislature supports a state senator's push for an "innocence panel."

The senator, Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, added a budget amendment last week that would provide $200,000 for a commission to "examine why people have been sent to state prison for crimes they didn't commit," according to an article in Florida Today. The panel also would work "to prevent more innocent people from going to jail."

A group of attorneys suggested the panel idea to the Florida Supreme Court last year. Last month, the court expressed support for the suggestion but noted a lack of funding for implementation.

Haridopolos' measure aims to clear that hurdle, although $200,000 may not be enough, experts say. Still, it's an important step that deserves the Legislature's backing.

Florida prisoners exonerated

In Florida, 12 prisoners have been exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing since 2001, according to the Innocence Project. The group is a national network that specializes in using DNA evidence to clear people wrongly convicted of serious crimes.

Anthony Caravella, imprisoned for 26 years after being found guilty of a Broward County rape and murder, was Florida's 12th person to be freed by the process. The 1983 crime occurred before DNA testing was available. But last year, the evidence was put to the test. Final results, made public last week, confirmed that his DNA was not found on crime scene materials. The hunt for the real killer continues.

In another case, Alan Crotzer was released from state prison in 2006 after spending 24 years incarcerated for crimes he didn't commit. Crotzer was arrested in 1981 and charged with robbery, kidnapping and sexual battery in connection with crimes committed in Tampa. He was convicted and sentenced to 130 years. He was released after being vindicated by a series of DNA tests and other discoveries. A court vacated his conviction and sentence.

Two years ago, the Legislature appropriately provided Crotzer with $1.25 million to compensate for his wrongful imprisonment, which was the result of flawed testimony from witnesses and the use of questionable tactics by the prosecution.

Four key factors

The Innocence Project has found that at least one of four key factors often plays a role in wrongful convictions. Those factors are:

Eyewitness misidentification, the "leading cause" of wrongful conviction.

Use (and misuse) of scientifically unproven forensic techniques. Comparative bullet-lead analysis, for example, is considered questionable.

False confessions -- particularly when the defendant is a juvenile, has diminished mental capacity, or is under duress. (Caravella, just 15 when charged and with an IQ considered mildly mentally retarded, is one example.)

"Snitch" testimony, which can be highly unreliable.

Criminal justice procedures are needed that reduce the incidence of these errors prior to conviction -- and that provide opportunities for post-conviction relief.

The Innocence Project advocates legal reforms that include requirements to preserve DNA evidence in all cases of serious crime; recording interrogations in their entirety; double-blind police lineups and photo identification procedures; and policies that reduce obstacles to DNA testing late in the "justice cycle."

Compensation for the wrongly convicted and help as they re-enter society are also needed.

Florida already has instituted some of these reforms, but more are necessary.

An "innocence panel," exploring the "how" and "why" of wrongful convictions, would be a powerful, positive step.