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.

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.