Innocence

Texas Inmate Facing Execution Is First to Ask for Review Under New Law

UPDATE: Avila's execution date has been stayed. Attorneys for Rigoberto Avila have requested an evidentiary hearing under a new law passed in Texas that allows defendants to challenge their convictions if they were gained through outdated forensic techniques. His case will be the first death penalty case in the state to be considered by the courts under this new legislation. Avila, a Navy vetern, was convicted of murder in El Paso in 2001 for the tragic death of a 19-month-old infant. He is scheduled to be executed on January 15, 2014. He has consistently maintained his innocence and wants to introduce a biomechanical analysis of the cause of death and the testimony of a forensic pathologist, tending to show that the infant's death was an accident. “Finality and certainty is important," said Cathryn Crawford, one of Mr. Avila’s lawyers, "but we have to also have a criminal justice system that is flexible enough to take into account when we have scientific advancements and to allow people like Mr. Avila to have their day in court.”

INNOCENCE: Faulty Practices Raise Doubts About Accuracy of Crime Labs

A recent article in the ABA Journal drew attention to problems in crime labs across the country that have resulted in  wrongful convictions, including some in death penalty cases. Investigations in many states and of the national FBI lab revealed a lack of written procedures, improper mixing of samples from different cases, improper testimony, and even falsification of test results. An Oklahoma City chemist who testified in 23 death penalty cases was later fired for giving false or misleading testimony. Twelve of the defendants in whose cases she had testified were executed. In North Carolina, an independent audit by two retired FBI agents showed that analysts at the state lab had regularly withheld or distorted evidence in more than 230 cases over a 16-year period, including three cases that resulted in executions. Some experts are pushing for better regulation of forensic labs. The National Academy of Sciences presented 13 recommendations in a 2009 report, including calling for the creation of an independent national institute of forensic science, and enforcement of accreditation and certification standards. Very few of the Academy's recommendations have been implemented. Paul Giannelli, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University, who has studied crime labs for 20 years, said forensic labs should be held to the same standards as clinical labs that conduct medical tests. "They're both a matter of life and liberty," he said.

INNOCENCE: The Role of Journalists in Freeing An Innocent Man

The fortuitous investigation of a case by persistent journalists, rather than the workings of the limited appellate process, has led to the exoneration of a number of innocent individuals. Maurice Possley (l.), a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune, recently wrote how he and fellow-journalist Steve Mills (r.) helped free Daniel Taylor (c.) in Illinois, where he had spent more than 20 years in prison. In 2001, the reporters published a story exposing the false and coerced confession that led to Taylor’s conviction, but it would be more than a decade before Taylor was freed. Evidence showed that Taylor was arrested for fighting and was in jail on the night of the murders in question. Eventually, the state discovered documents in the prosecutor’s files that had remained hidden for 19 years indicating police officers were certain Taylor was in jail and could not have committed the crime. Taylor's is among the 1,200 wrongful convictions listed in the National Registry of Exonerations. DPIC’s Innocence List includes 142 death row inmates who have been exonerated and freed. Such investigatory reporting contributed to Illinois's decision to abolish the death penalty in 2011.

RECENT LEGISLATION: Texas Law To Protect the Innocent May Curtail Death Penalty

A new Texas law requiring DNA testing of all biological evidence prior to seeking the death penalty could reduce the number of capital cases. District Attorney Billy Byrd of Upshur County noted, "Essentially, every piece of evidence will have to be tested,” he said, which could delay trials more than a year. “Certainly, that will be the case. We will have to deal with certain delays and longer waits,” he added, noting it is not uncommon for DNA evidence to take more than a year to be processed. Nevertheless, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (a likely Republican candidate for governor) is a strong supporter of the law, as is Senator Rodney Ellis, Democrat of Houston, who introduced the bill. Abbott believes the law will eventually save the state time and resources, because the necessary testing will be done upfront.

POSSIBLE INNOCENCE: Federal Judge Throws Out Pennsylvania Conviction As 'Grave Miscarriage of Justice'

A federal judge in Pennsylvania overturned the conviction of a death row inmate, stating he was "sentenced to die for a crime in all probability he did not commit." U.S. District Court Judge Anita Brody found errors in all facets of the case, noting that "Improper police work characterized nearly the entirety of the investigation." She described the prosecution as "a grave miscarriage of justice," and criticized the defense for failing to adequately investigate the evidence. The presentation of evidence in the penalty phase of the trial took only about 3 hours. The defendant, James Dennis, has been on death row for over 20 years, having been convicted of the 1991 murder of a high school student. No forensic evidence linked him to the crime, police ignored other leads, and prosecutors failed to hand over evidence to the defense. Evidence corroborating Dennis's alibi - that he was riding a bus far from the crime scene at the time of the murder - was lost by the prosecution. In 2011, the governor signed his death warrant, but the execution was stayed.

BOOKS: "The Corruption of Innocence" - the Joseph O'Dell Story

A new book by Lori St John, The Corruption of Innocence: A Journey to Justice, recounts the author's quest to save the life of Joseph O’Dell because of her strong belief in his innocence. St John describes the resistance she experienced in trying to have crime-related items tested for DNA evidence, and the international support that O'Dell attracted while on death row. O'Dell was executed in Virginia in 1997. Among those who had expressed doubts about O'Dell's guilt were three Justices of the Supreme Court. Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, who attended O'Dell's execution, praised the book, “This amazing story of a woman's valiant attempts to save an innocent man from execution might seem like a hyped-up, overwrought suspense novel. But everything told in these pages actually happened. Fasten your seat belt. It's going to take you for quite a ride.”

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.

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