Tuesday, March 31, 2009

State Innocence Commissions

As the number of wrongly convicted grows each day, residents of more states are calling for the establishment of innocence commissions. This week's Detroit Free Press called for the establishment of an innocence commission in Michigan where "Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said her office has identified nearly 150 cases of convicted and imprisoned people that will require the retesting of evidence as part of the investigation into the now-closed Detroit police crime lab."

An innocence commission, according to Free Press editorial writer Jeff Gerritt, "would recommend ways, often costing little, to reduce wrongful convictions." Gerritt goes on to say, "The costs of improving the system are less than the costs of incarcerating and prosecuting the wrong people, as well as appealing those convictions and having the guilty go free to victimize other people."

Colorado, too, could be well served by an innocence commission of its own.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Senator James Webb Calls for Criminal Justice Overhaul

A quick video about Webb's proposal:

From Senator Webb's web site:

Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) today introduced bipartisan legislation, The National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009 (S.714), to create a blue-ribbon commission charged with conducting an 18-month, top-to-bottom review of the nation's entire criminal justice system and offering concrete recommendations for reform. Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA), Ranking Member on the Judiciary Committee, is the principal Republican cosponsor.

The high-level commission created by the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009 legislation will be comprised of experts in fields including criminal justice, law enforcement, public heath, national security, prison administration, social Services, prisoner reentry, and victims' rights. It will be led by a chairperson to be appointed by the President. The Majority and Minority Leaders in the House and Senate, and the Democratic and Republican Governors Associations will appoint the remaining members of the commission.

"America's criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a national disgrace," said Senator Webb. "With five percent of the world's population, our country houses twenty-five percent of the world's prison population. Incarcerated drug offenders have soared 1200% since 1980. And four times as many mentally ill people are in prisons than in mental health hospitals. We should be devoting precious law enforcement capabilities toward making our communities safer. Our neighborhoods are at risk from gang violence, including transnational gang violence.

Webb continued: "There is great appreciation from most in this country that we are doing something drastically wrong. And, I am gratified that Senator Specter has joined me as the lead Republican cosponsor of this effort. We are committed to getting this legislation passed and enacted into law this year."

Coverage of Webb's proposal in the March 29, 2009, edition of Parade Magazine: http://webb.senate.gov/email/incardocs/parade_jimwebb.pdf.

Here's a link to the proposed legistlation: http://webb.senate.gov/email/incardocs/s.714.pdf.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Art and Truth in Justice

In his essay essay "The Origin of the Work of Art," Martin Heidegger he writes, "art lets truth originate." We're pleased that artist Pam Aloisa is using her artistry to illuminate truths in Todd's case. She writes about her "Todd Newmiller Series" of paintings:

The subject is based on the true life experiences of Coloradan Todd Newmiller, convicted and sentenced to 31 years in prison for murder. Todd, his family, and a growing number of friends and supporters steadfastly claim his innocence. Details of the crime investigation and trial have been discussed in the public forum and many issues remain unresolved. My personal interest was also piqued by the unfolding of tremendous personal drama in the case that also involved Todd's younger brother, Joel, a very strong set of parents, and a number of incompetent highly-paid professionals.

Here are three of the paintings and Pam's description of each:

"Todd's Cell"

“Todd’s Cell” is an interpretation of the claustrophobic space of a cell but with some odd distortions and juxtapositions to make the space enclose the viewer of the piece as well. You get a sense that the room is closing up around you. The colors are more modulated than the larger works; there is nothing very inviting or warm about the interior of this space.

"I Am Ahab"

"I am Ahab," is directly taken from the title of Todd Newmiller’s blog entries of writing from prison. The work features an abstract cubical with the narrow window that is standard in cells today. Outside the window is a slice of the life that is denied those inside: warmth, coziness, beauty (texture, color, nature), and family. Pages flutter, never reaching the floor or resolution. The endless boredom of incarceration is part of the message of this piece.

"Nothing to Say"

"Nothing to Say," is a satirical look at the family visits between Joel and Todd. In the blog site, Joel described these visits. Whiling away the hours, they draw and doodle, covering pages with funny cartoons and whimsical humor. In my translation, all pages are empty and no hands hold tools capable of making any marks. The imagery is startling and makes us uneasy.

More on Corrupt PA Judges

Ian Urbina writing in today's New York Times reports that "Things were different in the Luzerne County juvenile courtroom, and everyone knew it":

Proceedings on average took less than two minutes. Detention center workers were told in advance how many juveniles to expect at the end of each day — even before hearings to determine their innocence or guilt. Lawyers told families not to bother hiring them. They would not be allowed to speak anyway."

Urbina reports further:

“The judge’s whim is all that mattered in that courtroom,” said Marsha Levick, the legal director of the Juvenile Law Center, a child advocacy organization in Philadelphia, which began raising concerns about the court to state authorities in 1999. “The law was basically irrelevant.”

In today's Times, Urbina asks, "How did two native sons, elected twice to the bench to protect children and serve justice, decide to do the opposite? And why did no one stop them?"

Good questions that still need answers. The red flags in Pennsylvania were clearly visible, yet the judge's scam, which brought in over 2.6 million dollars and permitted a lifestyle far more lavish than their judicial salary alone would, continued for years.

The case should raise red flags across the nation. What oversight, what accountability mechanisms exist in other communities to ensure that those who should be protecting us aren't just scamming us?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Setting the Record Straight

According to today's New York Times, "The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania on Thursday ordered the slate cleaned for hundreds of youths who had been sentenced by a corrupt judge."

The corrupt judges, Judge Ciavarella and Michael T. Conahan, conspired to collect kickbacks--over two and half million dollars--for sentencing juveniles to lengthy stays at private detention centers.

What kinds of kids received the bogus sentences? Kids like Hillary Transue, a stellar student who'd never been in trouble. Her offense: a My Space page that mocked her school's assistant principle. The page even acknowledged that its contents were but a joke. No joke, however, was her sentence--taken away in handcuffs to spend three months at a juvenile detention center.

Marsha Levick, a lawyer with the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, commented, “Our view is that every kid who appeared before Judge Ciavarella was denied an impartial tribunal.”

The judges got away with their scheme for five years, despite operating openly in Pennsylvania's criminal justice system.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Innocence Commission

Jeff Gerritt, writing in today's Detroit Free Press argues for the creation of an innocence commission in Michigian. Several states have already established such commissions and more are sure to follow as the awareness of wrongful convictions grows. Gerrett makes a point that is especially germane during these difficult economic times:

The costs of improving the system are less than the costs of incarcerating and prosecuting the wrong people, as well as appealing those convictions and having the guilty go free to victimize other people.

The idea of saving money by doing the right thing is a win for everyone.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Twelve Years Taken

When the innocent go to prison, the guilty go free. Hear Herman Atkins, a man exonerated by DNA evidence after serving 12 years in prison, tell his story of injustice and hope.

On June 27 Coloradans will have an opportunity to do something about the problem of wrongful convictions. Please go to http://marchforfreedom.org and join others who have volunteered.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Juror Education

Perhaps the most important duty a citizen must perform is as a juror, but does our system adequately train jurors to understand fundamental concepts such as "reasonable doubt" or "innocent until proven guilty"? Take a look at the video below, and let us know what you think.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Take a few minutes to read a short story about a young man, an old woman, a boy who suffers a horrible assault, and the tragic consequences of an ill-considered Supreme Court opinion….

Community Service

Frank hadn’t wanted to visit Alice, but he’d had little choice since it was his community service requirement. Despite the smell of old people dying, a couple hours in the nursing home seemed better than wearing a Day-Glo vest and scooping trash from the roadside. She asked him why he, a stranger, had come, a question that revealed a clarity he’d not expected. In an instant he realized that he’d no reason to be anything but honest with the old lady. He’d see her maybe a dozen times, and she was probably so forgetful, she’d not even remember his response, so he thought why sugar-coat.

"I got arrested for driving drunk. You’re my punishment."

As soon as the words left his mouth, he was sorry, but Alice’s quick response cut short what would have been a stammering apology. Ninety-two years had ravaged Alice’s body, but a long life had only strengthened and callused her mind.

"Honey, why don’t you go get my worthless daughter drunk? Maybe then sometime she’d stop by and see me." Alice’s wrinkles deepened as she continued. "On second thought, forget it. Marie would pass me by for some other senile old biddy just to spite me."

They both smiled, and so began Frank’s weekly visits. He visited Alice every Thursday, long after he’d fulfilled his community-service requirement. He even visited Alice when his thirtieth birthday fell on a Thursday. Alice had a present for him, a pair of trousers, a gaudy pair of trousers with broad vertical red and white stripes.

When Frank saw them, a single word fell from his lips: "stripes."

"Well, Frankie," Alice explained, "Marie got off her duff and took me shopping, and she hated these pants so much, I just had to buy them. She called them ‘Uncle Sam pants.’ I know they’re a little loud, but you could get some wear out of them. Besides, they’re wear-dated."


"Yeah. See the label in the waistband. It’s got the date of manufacture—just four months ago. Guaranteed to last three years. If they wear out before then, just call the company."

Frank knew the pants would last at least three years. If his place didn’t burn down, they’d hang forever in his closet, worn maybe once or twice a year as a joke.

Alice knew what Frank was thinking. "Listen, Mr. Fancy Pants," she began, her eyes beginning to catch fire. "Let an old woman tell you a few things you ought to know by now. First, back in the thirties.... We’d not dismiss anything serviceable. Second," her features relaxed, a smile curled on her lips, "a gift you buy for someone else is also a gift for yourself. Don’t deny me that. The look on Marie’s face when I bought them.... What do they say in the commercials?"

Alice could barely contain her laugher.


And her laugh exploded and crescendoed in a coughing jag that had Frank wondering if he should press the nurse’s call button. But the coughing receded and diminished into hacking chords.

Frank ventured a response. "Ok, I’m glad you got under Marie’s skin. And I will wear them. Maybe not often." Alice smiled.

"Tell me about the thirties."

"You don’t need to know. It was dust storms and foreclosures and old cars that wouldn’t run. One week we lived on nothing but wild berries and some carrots we took from someone’s field. There was nothing for you, especially if you were someone who’d already lost everything." Then a lightness came over Alice in the telling. "But I was young. I could believe it would get better. It was hard for the old people to believe."

Three days later, just before a nurse arrived with lunch, Alice had her last coughing jag, the muscles in her face relaxed for the last time and forever. The nurse on first seeing Alice thought how surprisingly youthful she looked as she lay still on the bed. Too still, the nurse realized as she checked her chart. She never told anyone about her first impression of Alice in death.

Frank sequestered himself for a month, until a friend persuaded him to get on with living, to join him Halloween night at a costume party. Frank put on the red and white striped pants and went as Uncle Sam.

The following Monday Frank dropped the trousers off at the cleaners. The clerk looked at them closely, and as soon as Frank left, called the police….

To find out why the clerk called the police and to read the rest of the story, go to http://bearingfalsewitness.com/CommunityService.asp#part2.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Non-DNA Wrongful Convictions

We've all heard about the use of DNA testing to demonstrate innocence, but what about cases where there isn't DNA evidence? The Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University of law has a podcast where Rob Warden discusses the challenges of non-DNA cases. He points out that "DNA evidence is present almost exclusively in sexual assault cases, but the causes of wrongful convictions--such as erroneous identifications, junk science, and false confessions--are found in all kinds of cases, from armed robbery to murder."

You can view a summary of his comments or listen to his interview with podcast host John Maki at http://innocencespeaks.libsyn.com/index.php?post_id=441240.

Monday, March 09, 2009

False Confessions

False confessions often play a role in convicting the innocent. Marty Tankleff's is such a case. Here's a summary of Marty Tankleff's case from Fortress Innocence:

Marty Tankleff had just turned 17 years old when he was arrested for the murder of his parents in their Long Island home. After hours of aggressive interrogation by a detective with a questionable background, a dubious and unsigned "confession" lead to Marty's conviction. He was sentenced to 50 years to life in prison, with the possibility of parole in 2040. "Wrongful convictions are an epidemic in our justice system, and people need to become educated on the rampant corruption that is a threat to all of us," says Marty.

After more than 17 years in prison, Marty's conviction was vacated by the New York State Appellate Division in December of 2007. On July 22, 2008, a judge signed off on a motion by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to dismiss all charges against Marty. Cuomo announced he would not retry Marty, citing insufficient evidence to prove his guilt. A State Supreme Court Justice dismissed all charges against Marty Tankleff in the murder of his parents, and a report is still pending from the NY State Commission of Investigation about Suffolk County law enforcement for its conduct in Marty's wrongful conviction.

For more, see Marty's interview with Opra:

Sunday, March 08, 2009

60 Minutes and Eye Witness Testimony

Tonight's 60 Minutes presented a story that documents the human tragedy of the wrongful conviction of Roland Cotton and explains how unreliable eye witness testimony can be. This segment should be required viewing for anyone who ever sits on a jury. The story appears in two parts, each about 13 minutes long.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Resistence to the Truth

The DNA exonerations from around the country begs questioning the reasons so many people have been wrongly convicted. In the video below, former Wayne State, now University of Michigan Professor of Law David Moran details the resistence authorities often have to recognizing valid claims of innocence.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Victims of the Same Injustice

In 1984, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino testified that Ronald Cotton was the man who raped her. Eleven years later, DNA evidence cleared him of the crime. Their book, Picking Cotton, is as its subtitle claims, an extraordinary memoir of redemption and forgiveness.

Ronald Cotton says of their experience, "we were the victims of the same injustice by the same man." And now, they are friends speaking out for reform in how crimes are investigated.

Take a look at the moving video trailer for the book:

The book provides the background for Leslie Stahl's report on 60 Minutes this Sunday on the scientific basis for the reform Cotton and Thompson-Cannino urge.

And NPR today offers a thougtful audio essay on finding forgiveness from Cotton and Thompson-Cannino as a part of its "This I Believe" series.

Friday, March 06, 2009

When a Prosecutor has a Conscience

Take the case of New York prosecutor Daniel Bibb. He was prosecuting a high profile case--the rehearing of two men convicted in the Palladium Night Club shooting--and came to the conclusion the two men charged were innocent.

The New York Times reports:

Spurred by the doubts about the case, the district attorney’s office had assigned Mr. Bibb to reinvestigate with two police detectives, an inquiry that took nearly two years and led to the hearing into whether the convictions should be overturned. In his interview last summer with The Times, Mr. Bibb said he had tried before the hearing to persuade his superiors that the convictions should be set aside, but was ordered to defend them in court anyway.

Instead, he said, he purposely threw the case. Defense lawyers involved in the hearing have confirmed that he quietly helped them. He tracked down hard-to-find witnesses who cast doubt on the convictions, and held back while cross-examining witnesses with long criminal records.

For Bibb, the fallout was that he became the target of an ethics investigation for having followed his conscience. Today's Times article reports that the investigation has concluded after 6 months that no basis exists for disciplinary action and the inquiry has been closed.

I share the opinion of David Luban of Georgetown University, who had praised Mr. Bibb and called the outcome a good one. He said that prosecutors need not always act as “full-fledged” adversaries. “Prosecutors are supposed to seek justice, not victory,” he said.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

The Best There Is

Being victims of a wrongful conviction--and as family of one who has been wrongly conviction, we are victims--has cast us into a world that we'd previously not seen. We've become acutely aware of the scope of the wrongful conviction problem, and we've come to see much more broadly how deeply flawed our system is. That puts at odds with some, many of whom chant the mantra, "it's the best system of justice there is." Maybe. Maybe Moe is the wittiest of the Three Stooges, too.

Perhaps our system stacks up well against those in Russia, and China--though we incarcerate many more than either country. When it comes to killing prisoners, we're in the top five (along with China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. We're ahead of Iraq).

But numbers don't tell the whole story. The experiences of people plainly told can reach out profoundly. Consider the Scott Sisters, Jamie and Gladys, who are serving double-life sentences after being convicted of taking part in a robbery that netted $11 and in which no one was injured. The details of their case provide strong evidence that the sisters, in fact, did not even participate in the crime, but they suffered conviction anyway.

Nancy Lockhart, who has worked tirelessly to free the Scott Sisters, recently shared some of Jamie's moving diary diary at http://www.dissidentvoice.org/2009/03/women-in-prison-where-doe-we-draw-the-line/. Here's a brief extract:

When I entered prison at the tender age of 22, I felt like my world was coming apart and life was not worth living. There were no more secrets and I had to strip naked in front of everyone, including men, because they thought it was funny. I was made to spread my buttocks and the officer looked. If I had a gun, I would have ended my life right then.
For Jamie and many others there is little comfort in notion that our system is the "best."

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Evidence and the Supreme Court

The US Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday in a case brought by an inmate who has been denied testing of DNA evidence that the State of Alaska says would definitively prove either his innocence or guilt.

My question: why would the people of Alaska not want to know for sure if the inmate, William Osborne, was in fact the perpetrator? My guess is that the people--the real people, not the fiction that the prosecution represents--would want to know. Which leads to another question: why do citizens put up with prosecutors with little interest in seeking truth?

One might understand a rogue prosecutor here or there, someone like disgraced District Attorney Mike Nifong who went after the innocent members of the Duke Lacrosse Team. Or William "Bull" Peterson, who continued as DA for Ada Oklahoma, even after John Grisham exposed Peterson's shenanigans in the book Innocent Man. But here's a Supreme Court case--the state of Alaska joined by the US Department of Justice and by many other states arguing that there is no constitutional right to testing evidence that can determine innocence!

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Freedom March

Here's why we march:

Thanks to genpop.org

Today, I had the opportunity to write about our situtation at genpop.org. Many thanks to genpop for giving me the chance to address its audience.

The mission of genpop is admirable:

genpop.org is a blog devoted to bringing prison issues to light. It is run by volunteers who want to bring positive change to the American Criminal Justice system for the benefit of both victims and perpetrators.

Take a trip to genpop, and browse its thoughtful commentary.