Saturday, October 29, 2011

Texas Must Test DNA Before Carrying Out Skinner Execution

The following opinion by Kirk Bloodsworth was published by the Huffington Post on October 26, 2011.

Test the DNA. That is the simple request of Hank Skinner to Texas officials before they carry out his execution, which is scheduled for November 9. I do not know if Mr. Skinner is innocent or guilty -- but I do know firsthand the critical importance of DNA testing. Nearly twenty years ago, I became the first person in the United States exonerated from death row when post-conviction DNA testing proved my innocence.

In 1985, I was convicted and sentenced to death in Maryland for a crime I did not commit. I spent eight years in prison, two of those on death row, before I obtained the testing that led to my exoneration.

DNA testing not only proved my innocence. Ten years after I was released from prison, DNA helped identify the true person who committed the tragic murder of a young girl for which I had faced execution. That person confessed and is serving life in prison.

The only reason my name was cleared, and the right man brought to justice, is because prosecutors agreed to test the evidence. I am living proof that when scientific evidence is available, there is simply no excuse to refuse testing.

Texas officials have senselessly fought against DNA testing in Mr. Skinner's case for over a decade. Mr. Skinner came within one hour of execution last year before the U.S. Supreme Court intervened. He now faces execution again despite the State's continuing to vehemently block testing of key pieces of never-tested DNA evidence.

Such testing could resolve the doubts that persist in Mr. Skinner's case. For example, a man's windbreaker was found next to the body of Mr. Skinner's girlfriend Twila Busby, who was tragically murdered along with her two sons. Untested DNA evidence on the windbreaker includes blood spatter, human hairs, and perspiration stains. Investigation after Mr. Skinner was sent to Death Row revealed that another suspect had stalked Ms. Busby at a party on the night of the murder and left the party shortly after she did.

It would be indefensible for Texas to execute Mr. Skinner without taking the simple step of testing the DNA evidence. Over a dozen former prosecutors, judges and law enforcement and current and former Texas elected officials have called on state officials, including the Gray County District Attorney, the Texas Attorney General and Governor Rick Perry, to conduct the DNA testing. The State ought to heed these calls and do everything possible to be sure they have convicted the right person, particularly when it comes to death penalty cases.

Since my exoneration, I have worked to ensure that no defendants are denied the critical testing that saved my life. That is why I helped champion a federal law in 2004 to provide funds for post-conviction DNA testing.

Just this year, Texas lawmakers similarly recognized the vital importance of DNA testing. In May, the Texas Legislature passed a law expanding access to post-conviction DNA testing. The new law is designed for cases like Mr. Skinner's, where available DNA evidence has never been tested. Testing reliable scientific evidence can provide certainty and help maintain confidence in the criminal justice system.

The State has absolutely nothing to lose by putting off Mr. Skinner's upcoming execution to allow these tests to be conducted. Whether DNA proves Mr. Skinner's guilt or innocence, Texas officials should not be afraid of seeking the truth.

DNA allowed the mistakes in my case to be caught in time. Texas must test the evidence in Mr. Skinner's case before it is too late.

Kirk Bloodsworth was exonerated by DNA testing in 1993 after spending eight years in Maryland prison, two on death row, for a crime he did not commit. Mr. Bloodsworth was the first exoneree in a capital conviction in the United States.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Nationwide Tour Seeking Policy Reforms to Prevent Prosecutorial Misconduct

Press Release

Veritas Initiative, Innocence Project, Innocence Project New Orleans and Voices of Innocence Will Embark on Nationwide Tour Seeking Policy Reforms to Prevent Prosecutorial Misconduct

Death Row Exoneree John Thompson, Who Was Stripped of His $14 Million Civil Award for Prosecutorial Misconduct by the U.S. Supreme Court, Will Headline Events

Contact: Audrey Redmond, 408-554-4790, cell 408-396-1360,
Paul Cates, 212-364-5346, cell 917-566-1294,

(Washington, D.C. – October 27, 2011) Today the Northern California Innocence Project’s Veritas Initiative, the Innocence Project, the Innocence Project New Orleans, and Voices of Innocence announced plans to conduct a nationwide tour, “Prosecutorial Oversight: A National Dialogue in the Wake of Connick v. Thompson,” to explore policy reforms to prevent prosecutorial misconduct. John Thompson, who lost his appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 and was stripped of his $14 million civil award for the intentional misconduct that caused his wrongful murder conviction and near execution, will headline forums across the country with policy makers and prosecutors to spark a national dialogue on possible solutions.

“As someone who came within days of being put to death because of the intentional misconduct of prosecutors at the New Orleans District Attorney’s Office, I’m all too familiar with what can go wrong when the enormous power of prosecutors goes unchecked,” said Thompson, Founder and Director of Resurrection After Exoneration and Voices of Innocence; “My case was not an isolated incident. Of the six men who received the death penalty at the hands of one of my prosecutors, five had their convictions reversed because of prosecutorial misconduct. I know that most prosecutors are as bothered by this behavior as I am, and I call on them to help us find a way to make prosecutors’ offices more accountable.”

The tour, which will include stops in Arizona, California, Louisiana, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas, will bring together participants from all aspects of the criminal justice system including legal ethics professors, members of bar disciplinary committees, prosecutors and judges. At the end of the tour, the groups will prepare a report with recommendations for reform.

“We recognize that this is a complex problem. It is not easy to develop internal systems in prosecutors’ offices that effectively distinguish between error and misconduct nor independent institutions outside of their offices that can adequately investigate and remedy misconduct when it occurs. A serious, thoughtful, constructive discussion of this issue, conducted without posturing or finger pointing, is an appropriate response to John Thompson’s case, which makes it clear that civil suits against prosecutors are virtually impossible,” said Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law.

Kathleen Ridolfi, professor at Santa Clara University School of Law and Executive Director of the Northern California Innocence Project and the Veritas Initiative, added, “Allowing this type of misconduct to persist undercuts public trust and undermines prosecutors who do their jobs properly. Prosecutors – who are no doubt just as concerned about misconduct as we are – are in an excellent position to help identify and correct improper prosecutorial actions. Their input will be invaluable as we move forward with collaborative discussions focused on solving this problem.”

At each stop on the tour, the groups will release new state specific research illustrating the scope of the problem. This research will mirror research that was released last year in California by the Veritas Initiative in Preventable Error: A Report on Prosecutorial Misconduct in California 1997-2009, which documented 707 instances where an appellate court found misconduct during the 13 year period, but found that only 7 prosecutors were disciplined.

“There’s no question that prosecutors have tremendous responsibility to protect our safety, but everyone suffers when prosecutors put their zeal for winning above finding the truth.  We’ve seen too many situations where the innocent are unjustly punished because of prosecutorial misconduct.  The current mechanisms of accountability are not working. These forums are an important step towards reform that is long overdue,” said Angela Davis, professor of law at American University's Washington College of Law and author of Arbitrary Justice: The Power of the American Prosecutor.
Questions that panelists will discuss at the forums will include:
What are the systems we rely upon to ensure prosecutorial accountability?
What does research-based evidence tell us about how well those systems are working?
What improvements should be made to these systems to ensure quality and accountability?

A video of today’s press conference and additional information about “Prosecutorial Oversight: A National Dialogue in the Wake of Connick v. Thompson” is available at