Sunday, June 24, 2012

Wrongful Convictions: Justice Denied

The following editorial was published by the Richmond (Virginia) Times-Dispatch on June 22, 2012.

An innocent person wrongfully imprisoned is the stuff of Hollywood movies, real-life TV shows — and authoritarian regimes. It is also, tragically, the story of too many men in Virginia's prison system.

A new study — the most authoritative to date — based on DNA testing indicates that at least 8 percent, and perhaps as many as 15 percent, of persons convicted of sexual-assault crimes during the 15-year-period studied may be innocent. This is horrifying news.

It is horrifying on a number of levels. One is the grave injustice done to those who are branded sex offenders and consigned to a miserable life behind bars for years on end, though they have done nothing wrong. And though the prisoners' families are not locked up, they suffer right alongside them. Imagine having a father, son or brother consigned to barred hell through no fault of his own. (Those who say guests of the prison system have a soft and easy life are invited to try it for a few months and see for themselves.)

Wrongful imprisonment also compounds that injustice by letting the real perpetrator go free — perhaps to commit further heinous acts. From the perspective of deterrence and punishment, locking up the wrong person is even worse than leaving a case unsolved. At least in an unsolved case, the authorities know the perpetrator is still out there somewhere. With a wrongful conviction, they can rest easy in the false belief they have put him away.

What's more, wrongful conviction victimizes all over again those who have suffered sexual assault — who find themselves stripped of the comfort of knowing their attackers are behind bars. And finally, it diminishes public confidence in the criminal-justice system.

Police and prosecutors do their best. Many of them enter their professions precisely because they are motivated by a powerful thirst for justice and a felt duty to root out evil. But like everyone else on the planet, those who work in law enforcement fall short of perfection. The Urban Institute report on wrongful convictions shows the extent to which human shortcomings can combine to create systemic failure.

The report does not provide the final word. Much more scrutiny and analysis are in order. But the report should serve as a call to action for state lawmakers. It also should sound alarms elsewhere. Virginia's DNA testing project sets the commonwealth apart from and above the other 49 states, which have undertaken no such examination. Perhaps they should.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

She's Innocent. We're Guilty.

The following op-ed by Julia Baird was published by the New York Times on June 15, 2012.

Sydney, Australia

ULURU, the large red rock in the Australian outback, is a sacred site for aboriginal people. Photographs do not convey how dramatically it looms: an enormous crimson heart in the middle of thousands of miles of flat, muted desert.

It was here, on Aug. 17, 1980, that a dingo — an Australian wild dog — dragged a baby called Azaria Chamberlain from a tent as her parents sat by the campfire. Her body was never found.

Azaria’s desperate mother, Lindy, was accused of lying, convicted of murder and sent to prison. The film about her, “A Cry in the Dark,” starring Meryl Streep, spawned a thousand jokes: “A dingo’s got my baby!” It was not until this week that Lindy and her ex-husband, Michael, were finally given the vindication they longed for: a death certificate that stated that the cause of Azaria’s death was a dingo attack.

Why did it take three decades, tens of millions of dollars, a criminal case appealed in Australia’s highest court, a royal commission and four inquests to establish Lindy Chamberlain’s innocence? In that time, Australia’s population grew from 14.5 million to almost 23 million. The case has been a spectacular example of poor forensic science, anxiety about “evil mothers” and suspicion of religiosity — the Chamberlains are members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which was wrongly portrayed as an infant-slaying cult. Rumors circulated that Azaria meant “sacrifice in the wilderness” in Hebrew, not “blessed of God.”

Most Australians thought the dingo was a flimsy excuse. Few people, except park rangers, believed a dingo would attack a baby, and the evidence indigenous trackers gave about drag marks near the tent was brushed aside. In a 1984 poll, 76.8 percent of Australians said Lindy Chamberlain was guilty, and the investigation did little to change their minds.

Then there was Lindy Chamberlain herself. She was thought too “sexy” and “cold”; she walked into court with a face set like concrete under large black sunglasses and severely cut black hair. Much was made of her bare, tanned shoulders, her expansive wardrobe and her stoicism. When she did not weep on cue, no one suggested she might have been suffering from shock or trauma. Even worse, she was accused of playing to the cameras that were constantly thrust in her face. She was, we were told, more interested in looking pretty than in the death of her child.

This was a woman, as the prosecution put it, who could murder a baby with nail scissors in the front seat of her car before stuffing the body into a camera case. When a forensic expert claimed there were bloodstains in the front of the Chamberlain’s car, those harboring suspicions were triumphant. Guilty! People spat on her as she walked into the courtroom. It took years before it emerged that the marks were from a chemical spray and old milk.

When “A Cry in the Dark” was released in 1988, it presented a significant challenge to public opinion, coming as it did on the heels of a commission that established serious bungling of evidence by the police and judiciary and overturned the conviction for which Lindy Chamberlain served three years. The movie offered a sympathetic portrayal of a woman struck by an inexplicable tragedy and then accused of an inexplicable crime. By then, she had already given birth in prison to her fourth child, who lived with foster parents until her mother was released. Many people wrote her apologetic letters after seeing the film.

When the coroner tearfully declared the Chamberlains innocent this week and gave them Azaria’s correct death certificate, there was a surprising display of grief and shame in Australia. Comedians issued public apologies for using Lindy Chamberlain as a punch line; TV hosts were grave and emotional. Azaria would have turned 32 on June 11; her parents’ faces crumpled when reminded of it.

The Australian historian Michelle Arrow, who has co-edited a book about the case, believes it was such an engrossing spectacle that we still bear a “psychic scar” from it. Part of the witch hunt, certainly, was about the way white Europeans viewed aboriginal land; as a remote place where sinister things would happen, a place of dark magic where a young mother would slit her baby’s throat as a sacrifice to God.

We see now that our willingness to believe that was a collective failure of empathy. We assumed an innocent woman was guilty. We threw rocks at a grieving mother. And a nation founded by convicts somehow forgot the presumption of innocence.

Lindy Chamberlain is writing a book on forgiveness now. She has learned how to absolve those who mocked, vilified and condemned her. We should take longer to forgive ourselves.

Julia Baird, a journalist, is the author of “Media Tarts: How the Australian Press Frames Female Politicians.”

Thursday, June 07, 2012

DA's defeat may offer a good lesson

The following opinion by Bob Ray Sanders was published by Arlington (Texas) Star-Telegram on June 6, 2012.

Although justice can move very slowly, it eventually tends to discover the truth and mete out the appropriate punishment or reward.

Sometimes, it even catches up with those charged with administering it, like the haughty district attorney of Williamson County near Austin.

John Bradley, first appointed Williamson County DA by Gov. Rick Perry in 2001 and subsequently elected to the position, was soundly defeated in his bid for re-election in the May 29 Republican primary. The victor in that race was County Attorney Jana Duty, who used the wrongful conviction of an innocent man to persuade voters that Bradley was unworthy of the office.

Bradley was not district attorney when Michael Morton was convicted in the 1986 murder of his wife and sentenced to life in prison without parole. But Bradley was there when Morton and his attorneys began asking for DNA testing that could prove his innocence. For six years, those requests were denied, with Bradley saying that evidence was irrelevant.

Last December, Morton was officially exonerated after a judge ordered the testing that linked the murder to another man, Mark Norwood, who was charged with the crime in February.

Morton was freed after serving 25 years in prison.

But his case isn't completely over. Morton's lawyers have alleged that the prosecutor in the case, Ken Anderson -- now a state district judge -- had failed to turn over several pieces of evidence that would have been beneficial to Morton's defense.

Earlier this year, a Bexar County judge recommended a court of inquiry after finding probable cause that Anderson had broken the law. Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson selected state District Judge Louis Sturns of Tarrant County to lead the court of inquiry investigation into whether prosecutorial misconduct occurred.

Bradley isn't the target of the misconduct allegation, but his role in resisting Morton's pleas for testing worked against him, just as his hard-line stance in a separate murder case may have.

When the Texas Forensic Science Commission was investigating the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted of setting a fire that killed his three young daughters, some arson investigation specialists said bad science had been used to conclude that the blaze was deliberately set. If it was not arson, then it was not murder. Willingham's advocates argue that he was wrongly convicted, but he was executed in 2004.

Shortly before a key commission hearing on the case, the governor replaced four members; their terms had expired, but the timing looked suspicious. Perry appointed Bradley commission chairman, and the new head quickly became an obstructionist to the Willingham investigation.

Bradley called Willingham a "guilty monster," backing up Perry's assertion that he was guilty because a jury had said so. And it appeared that Bradley did not want the investigation to proceed on any level that might show Texas had executed an innocent man.

He favored adoption of a report that said fire investigators in the case had done no wrong. But other commission members resisted that conclusion. The panel's work on the Willingham case was limited by a convoluted 2011 ruling from Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who said the commission could not investigate cases that occurred before the Legislature established it in 2005. Abbott said the members could consider whether there was professional misconduct in the investigation, but they could not examine specific evidence used to prosecute Willingham.

Not long before that, the Republican-controlled state Senate had refused to vote on Bradley's reappointment as chairman. He was replaced by Tarrant County Medical Examiner Nizam Peerwani.

The Innocence Project was the major advocate in both the Morton and Willingham cases.

With the organization's help, more than 40 convicted individuals in Texas have been exonerated through DNA testing in the past few years, which makes Bradley's obstinate behavior even more reprehensible.

Perhaps now he's learned a valuable lesson, one I hope is taught to a few more district attorneys around the state.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

More on the implications of the national registry of wrongful convictions

The following editorial was published by the Virginian-Pilot on June 4, 2012.

Past time for justice reform

It is no secret that flaws exist in this nation's criminal justice system. As in all human endeavors, there is a margin of error.

The margin, however, may be greater than most Americans are willing to accept when it comes to meting out punishment in the name of justice. New research suggests that lawmakers, who last year cast aside a proposal to reform the nation's criminal justice system, ought to reconsider.

The reforms, proposed by outgoing Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, would have established a blue-ribbon commission to identify ways to make the system more efficient, effective and just.

As Webb repeatedly noted, the United States accounts for 5 percent of the world's people but 25 percent of the world's reported prison population. Programs aimed at rehabilitation - and reducing recidivism - aren't adequately developed or supported.

The nation's endless war on drugs has led to a 1,200 percent increase in inmates convicted of drug offenses in the past 30 years. And even with more people locked up, a majority of Americans report feeling less safe.

The proposed commission would have offered recommendations, which states and localities could have considered for adoption. It was roundly supported by law enforcement and civil rights groups before it was demagogued in the Senate and defeated.

A recent study by two universities underscores yet another reason for reform: The prevalence of mistakes in investigations and trials.

The University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law have compiled a first-of-its-kind national database of people wrongfully convicted of serious crimes since 1989. The researchers contend they've found more than 2,000 people wrongfully convicted, and they've listed details for about 873. Nearly half were imprisoned on murder charges.

Twenty-five are from Virginia.

Some were convicted of lesser charges:

Christopher Prince of Culpeper, convicted of burglary, was exonerated after victims admitted lying to investigators. Some were freed by happenstance: Arthur Lee Whitfield and Julius Ruffin, both of Norfolk, were both cleared of sexual assault convictions after DNA testing of evidence preserved by a state forensic scientist who broke protocol.

Because they were publicized, those cases were relatively easy to compile for the database. Scores of others likely exist.

"We know that there are many more that we haven't found," said Samuel Gross, a Michigan professor and editor of the National Registry of Exonerations.

From a purely financial perspective, the database - and the findings cited by Webb - suggest taxpayers aren't getting nearly the return they deserve on the billions spent to fight crime every year. From a civic perspective, they demonstrate a failure of policies to adhere to justice rather than identifying criminals and racking up convictions.

And until Americans demand change, nothing will.