STUDIES: Texas To Re-Examine Previous Convictions for Forensic Errors

The Texas Forensic Science Commission announced it will study prior criminal convictions to determine whether mistakes were made using discredited forensic testimony. The Commission will employ DNA testing to review cases in which microscopic hair fibers were used to convict people of rape, murder, robbery, and other crimes. It has recently been established that it is impossible to match a hair under a microscope to a specific person. Forensic experts can make an “association” between a sample of hair evidence and a hair from a suspect. The state’s review is part of a national effort by the FBI and the Justice Department to identify false convictions due to improper hair comparisons. Arthur Eisenberg, a Texas science commissioner, said, “We have a moral responsibility to find out… We want to make sure convictions are based upon responsible forensic evidence. And we want to make sure there aren’t cases where undue weight has been put on that evidence.” Such review came too late for Claude Jones, who was executed in Texas in 2000. At his trial, an expert said there was a match between a hair from the crime scene and Jones. DNA testing later showed the hair belonged to the victim.

False Confessions and Threats of the Death Penalty

A recent article in The Atlantic by Marc Bookman (pictured) shows how threats of the death penalty can contribute to false confessions. The piece recounts a Pennsylvania murder case in which two defendants, Russell Weinberger and Felix Rodriguez, admitted to a murder they did not commit, leading to their imprisonment for over 21 years. Rodriguez described his interrogation: "First they showed me pictures of the dead guy. I started to cry. I said I didn't do that. That's when they slapped me on the back of my head, said 'They gonna put you in the electric chair.' So I signed the statement. I knew it might be bad, but I didn't know what to do. I'd never been in real trouble before. I signed the statement 'cause they said I could go home."  Weinberger, who was intellectually disabled with an IQ between 60 and 65, at first denied involvement in the murder, but later submitted a confession after Rodriquez implicated him in the crime. Weinberger was offered a lesser sentence if he agreed to testify against Rodriguez. Twenty years later in March 2001, a prison inmate named Anthony Sylvanus (represented by Mr. Bookman) admitted to committing 5 similar murders, including the one Weinberger and Rodriguez had confessed to. Sylvanus revealed facts that only the true perpetrator was likely to know. Rodriguez and Weinberger were eventually allowed to plead nolo contendere and were released from prison after serving 21 years.

Special Master in Missouri Finds Prosecutors Hid Evidence of Coerced Confession

On August 7, the Special Master assigned to review the case of Reginald Clemons (pictured) in Missouri announced that prosecutors withheld evidence indicating detectives beat Clemons into confessing to rape and murder that led to his death sentence. Clemons recanted the confession, but a tape of it was played at trial and he was convicted in 1993. No physical evidence linked him to the rape. Judge Michael Manners, who conducted special evidentiary hearings on Clemons's possible innocence, said the state's withholding of evidence was not "harmless error." Nevertheless, he ruled that Clemons failed to establish his actual innocence because the verdict would have been the same without the confession. The report now goes to the Missouri Supreme Court for review.

After FBI Revelations, Mississippi Court Reverses Itself And Grants DNA Testing

After earlier voting to deny death row inmate Willie Manning access to DNA testing, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed itself on July 23 and cleared the way for the testing of evidence in Manning's case. Manning has maintained his innocence since his 1994 conviction of the murders of two college students. His renewed request for testing was supported by letters from the Department of Justice and the FBI, which are conducting a review of forensic testimony by FBI experts. They have found 27 death penalty cases, including Manning's, that may have included erroneous testimony. Manning came within hours of execution on May 7, but the Mississippi Supreme Court finally granted a stay after hearing from the Justice Department about errors at Manning's trial. The order gives Manning 60 days to ask a county judge to grant DNA and fingerprint testing. Tucker Carrington, Director of the Mississippi Innocence Project, said of the decision, "I feel like Mississippi stepped back from the precipice, regardless of the results … by allowing the testing and avoiding becoming one of a few if not the first state ever to ignore ... the probative value of post conviction DNA evidence."

FBI To Examine 27 Death Penalty Cases For Potentially Inaccurate Testimony

A Federal Bureau of Investigation review of more than 21,000 cases has revealed 27 death penalty cases in which the FBI's forensic experts may have exaggerated the scientific conclusions that could be drawn from their testimony, mistakenly linking defendants to crimes they may not have committed. It is possible that some of these cases involve inmates who have already been executed. Under particular scrutiny is testimony regarding hair evidence. Although FBI laboratory reports have long stated that positive identifications could not be made through hair association, several agents testified that different hairs could be identified as coming from the same person with near certainty. The FBI is working with the Department of Justice, the Innocence Project, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to identify troublesome cases, and has agreed to notify both prosecutors and defendants if they find that agents made mistakes in testimony or reports. The Department of Justice will also waive deadlines and other rules that restrict appeals and test DNA evidence if requested by a judge or prosecutor. Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project, called the review a “major step forward to improve the criminal justice system and the rigor of forensic science in the United States.” The review is still in its early stages, but has already led to a stay of execution for Willie Manning (pictured) in Mississippi. In Manning's trial, an FBI agent had testified that a hair from the crime scene belonged to Manning. The FBI later admitted that the testimony "exceeded the limits of the science," and a stay of execution was granted.

NEW VOICES: UN Secretary General Urges Members to Abolish the Death Penalty

At a recent event sponsored by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon encouraged member nations to work towards ending capital punishment. Mr. Ban particularly focused on the risk of wrongful executions, saying, "We have a duty to prevent innocent people from paying the ultimate price for miscarriages of justice. The most sensible way is to end the death penalty." The event--"Moving away from the death penalty--Wrongful Convictions"--featured the film West of Memphis, a documentary about three Arkansas teenagers who were convicted of a brutal crime they almost certainly did not commit. The three were freed in 2011. Damien Echols, who had been sentenced to death for the crime, was among the speakers at the event. Since 2007, the UN General Assembly has passed four resolutions calling for a moratorium on executions, and six countries have abolished the death penalty in that time. About 150 UN member countries are now abolitionist by law or in practice. 

RECENT LEGISLATION: Florida Lawyers Challenge New Law Accelerating Executions

On June 26, lawyers in Florida filed a lawsuit challenging the 2013 Timely Justice Act, a law signed by Gov. Rick Scott earlier in June. The Act could accelerate executions by requiring the governor to sign a death warrant within 30 days of a Supreme Court review, provided the governor determines that the clemency process is complete. An execution must follow within 180 days. The lawsuit was filed by the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, a state agency that represents death row inmates during post-conviction proceedings, with more than 100 current death row inmates named as plaintiffs. The lawsuit claims that the new law is unconstitutional because it takes away the court’s powers and violates death penalty defendants’ rights to due process and equal protection. The suit stated, “The Act creates a rushed process for issuance of a likely flood of death warrants that will inundate the courts and abruptly cut off this Court’s exercise of judicial review in capital cases. If not addressed prior to its operation in practice, the process will have the unconstitutional and irreversible result of individuals being executed under a legislatively-determined judicial procedure in which violations of their constitutional rights go unresolved. Further, Florida history shows that diminished process can have tragic and irreversible consequences.” Florida leads the country in exonerations, with 24 inmates released from death row since 1973. The Timely Justice Act is scheduled to take effect on July 1.

Oklahoma Supreme Court Suspends Former Prosecutor for Misconduct in Death Penalty Cases

On June 25 (Tuesday), the Oklahoma Supreme Court suspended former Oklahoma County prosecutor Robert Bradley Miller for his misconduct in murder trials that eventually led to the release of two death row inmates. In 2006, a federal judge dismissed the murder convictions of Paris Powell and Yancy Douglas after finding that a deal made between the prosecutor and the key witness in the case was never disclosed to the defense attorneys. In Tuesday’s ruling, the Oklahoma Supreme Court found that Miller misused the subpoena process to force witnesses to cooperate, failed to disclose evidence to defense attorneys, and prevented the defense from accessing evidence. In a 5-2 decision, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ordered that Miller be suspended from practicing law for 180 days and pay a fine of $12,800. Although the majority agreed to the suspension, Justice Steven Taylor wrote in his dissent that Miller should have been disbarred. Justice Taylor wrote, “Whether it was 'decades ago' or today, no attorney should ever commit the 'reprehensible' conduct in death penalty (or any other) litigation as detailed in the majority opinion and trial panel report. The actions of the respondent take us into the dark, unseen, ugly, shocking nightmare vision of a prosecutor who loves victory more than he loves justice."