Innocence

NEW VOICES: Former FBI Director Says People Were Executed Based Partly on Faulty Agency Testimony

William Sessions, former head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, recently pointed to cases of defendants who were executed based in part on faulty hair and fiber analysis in calling for changes in the use of forensic evidence. In an op-ed in the Washington Times, Sessions told the story of Benjamin Boyle, who was executed in Texas in 1997. His conviction was based on testing conducted by an FBI crime lab that an official review later determined to be unreliable and "scientifically unsupportable." Neither state officials nor Boyle's attorneys were notified of the task force's findings before his execution. In two other cases, inmates were also executed despite findings that their cases were tainted by unreliable forensic testimony from the FBI. Sessions said, "I have no idea whether Boyle was innocent, but clearly, he was executed despite great doubts about his conviction. Such uncertainty is unacceptable, especially in a justice system that still allows the death penalty."

NEW VOICES: Former Ohio Attorney General Now Opposes Death Penalty and Calls for Reform

Jim Petro served as Ohio's Attorney General and presided over 18 executions. However, he abandoned his support for capital punishment after seeing the risks of wrongful executions: "Our justice system is based on the decision-making of human beings, and human beings are fallible. We make mistakes and our judgments are influenced by biases and imperfect motivations. Implementing the death penalty makes our errors permanent and impossible to remedy." Recently, he called on the Ohio legislature to adopt the reforms recommended by a Task Force appointed by the state Supreme Court, saying, "Without action the death penalty system will continue to be an expensive, unfairly applied, and risk-filled process that has no place in today's criminal justice system." He asked the legislature to require the recording of interrogations, certification of crime labs, and guidelines for prosecutors seeking the death penalty.

Sen. Leahy Cites North Carolina Exonerations in Calling for Legislaton

In a recent speech in the U.S. Senate calling for the reauthorization of the Justice for All Act, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) spoke about the recent exonerations of two men in North Carolina, citing the importance of DNA testing in their release from prison after 30 years: "The dozens of exonerations made possible by the Justice for All Act are testament enough to its value," Leahy said, "Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown are just the latest examples. The injustice they survived – and the fact that North Carolina nearly executed an innocent man–should dispel any doubt that this legislation is urgently needed." The Act was first passed in 2004 and has provided important assistance to states and local governments in using DNA evidence to convict the guilty and exonerate the innocent. The reauthorization is sponsored by Leahy and Senator John Cornyn (R-TX). The testing in the North Carolina case was funded by the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Grant program, a portion of the Justice for All Act named for the first man exonerated from death row by DNA evidence. Read Leahy's statement below.

POSSIBLE INNOCENCE: Mississippi Inmate Challenges Bite-Mark Evidence

A new appeal filed on behalf of Mississippi death row inmate Eddie Howard, Jr. presented DNA evidence that calls into question bite-mark evidence used to convict him in 1992. At Howard's trial, Dr. Michael West, a Mississippi dentist who had testified as a forensic expert in numerous cases, said Howard's teeth matched bite marks found on the murder victim. The victim had been buried for three days and exhumed before West examined her. He said he found three bite marks that matched Howard "to a reasonable medical certainty," but presented no photographs or other evidence to support his testimony. According to the Innocence Project, at least 17 people who were convicted of rape or murder based on alleged bite matches have been exonerated since 2000. Dr. West was the expert witness in two of those cases. In 2006, the Mississippi Supreme Court refused to reconsider Howard's case, saying, “Just because Dr. West has been wrong a lot, does not mean, without something more, that he was wrong here.” In 2010, the court granted DNA testing of the murder weapon and other items from the crime scene. That testing, which showed no link to Howard, is the basis for the new appeal.

Department of Justice Releases Special Report, "Mending Justice"

A new report from the National Institute of Justice examines ways to reduce and prevent errors, such as the wrongful conviction of an innocent person. The report proposes "sentinel event reviews" -- the examination of mistakes with a view of finding systemic problems. The report uses the death penalty exoneration of John Thompson in Louisiana to illustrate its goal: "In Connick [v. Thompson], the trial prosecutor withheld crime lab results from the defense, removed a blood sample from the evidence room, and failed to disclose that Thompson had been implicated by someone who had received a reward from the victim’s family. The conviction and death sentence were ultimately overturned on appeal, but no one learned anything from the Connick appellate opinions about the deeper, abiding issues in the case’s narrative, and those issues were left to surface again in future cases." The report includes analysis and recommendations from people involved in all facets of the criminal justice system, including police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and academics.

INNOCENCE: Attorney for Freed Death Row Prisoner Calls Case a "Tragedy"

In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Kenneth Rose, an attorney for the recently freed Henry McCollum, expressed his frustrations with the death-penalty system that allowed such mistakes to happen in the first place: "I am angry that we live in a world where two disabled boys can have their lives stolen from them, where cops can lie and intimidate with impunity, where innocent people can be condemned to die and where injustice is so difficult to bring to light. As I lie awake at night, mulling over the maddening details of this case, I wonder: How many more Henry McCollums are still imprisoned, waiting for help that will never come?" He described the hardships McCollum experienced on death row, including seeing other inmates being executed. "He became so distraught during executions that he had to be put in isolation so he wouldn’t hurt himself," Rose said. McCollum only saw his family on rare occasions when they could make the long drive from New Jersey to North Carolina, and both his mother and grandmother died while he was imprisoned. Read the op-ed below.

POSSIBLE INNOCENCE: Originally Sentenced to Death, Brothers May Now Be Cleared in North Carolina

UPDATE: Both defendants freed after judge overturns convictions. EARLIER: Henry McCollum (l.) and Leon Brown (r.), two brothers who were convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1984, may soon be freed because of evidence uncovered by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission. McCollum was 19 and Brown was 15 when they confessed to the rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie. Both men are intellectually disabled - McCollum has an IQ in the 60s and Brown has scored as low as 49 on IQ tests. McCollum and Brown have maintained their innocence since their trial, saying they were unaware they were signing a confession. “I’d never been under such pressure, people yelling and screaming at me,” McCollum said of his interrogation. “I was scared, and was just trying to get out of that police station and go home.” In 2010, Brown, who is now serving a life sentence for rape after his murder conviction was thrown out, contacted the Innocence Commission about his case. The Commission found DNA evidence near the crime scene belonging to another man, Roscoe Artis, who was sentenced to death for a crime similar to the one for which McCollum and Brown were sentenced to death. (Artis' sentence was later reduced to life.) On September 2, defense attorneys for Brown and McCollum will present the evidence and ask a Robeson County judge to free both men. Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt, who is not opposing the request, said, “The whole case rests on the confessions, and the DNA evidence threw those confessions under the bus.”

STUDIES: Innocence and the Death Penalty Around the World

A new report from The Death Penalty Project, "The Inevitability of Error," examines the risk of wrongful convictions in capital prosecutions through case studies from around the world. The report analyzes recent innocence cases in Japan, the U.S., Taiwan, and Sierra Leone, as well as older cases from the United Kingdom that encouraged abolition efforts there. Among the cases included are those of Iwao Hakamada, who was released after 47 years on death row in Japan, and Kirk Bloodsworth, the first person in the U.S. exonerated from death row by DNA evidence. The study recommends improvements to investigative and appellate procedures, but concludes, "This may, in theory, decrease the likelihood of wrongful convictions, but it will never eliminate it altogether....There is no perfect justice system - error is inevitable. Wherever the death penalty is imposed, there is always a risk that innocent people will be convicted and executed."

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