Thursday, April 30, 2009

Resistence to Truth from Dallas-Fort Worth reports on the move in Texas to reform procedures for treating eyewitnesses in crimes. Texas lawmakers have proposed standard written procedures to reduce the number of wrongful convictions occurring due to questionable practices by law enforcement officials. Although Sergeant Kevin Perlich speaking on behalf of the Richardson, Texas, Police believes the upgrades are a good idea, many in the Texas law-enforcement establish oppose them. Why would police resist procedures to improve accuracy in identifying criminals?

Texas exonoree Johnnie Lindsey, who spent 26 years in prison for a rape he didn't commit recently testified on behalf of the changes. interview with Lindsey is available online.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Gallows Humor and Wrongful Convictions

Of course wrongful conviction is no laughing matter, but satirical accounts of tragic human behavior has long been a tool for enlightenment. Think Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal."

With that context in mind, take a look at this from The Onion:

DNA Evidence Frees Black Man Convicted Of Bear Attack

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Coercive Interrogation

Steven Kleinman is an Air Force Reserve Colonel with experience interrogating prisoners during the Panama invasion, the First Gulf War, and most recently in Iraq, where he became in his words perhaps the "most unpopular officer" in the country because of his efforts to halt "harsh" interrogations.

Col Kleinman knew that the problem with coercive techniques is that they elicit false information. Responding to questions by NPR's Robert Siegel, Kleinman said, "it's not just harsh physically, but I think the element that was more persuasive was their ability to induce what is known as debility, depression and dread through emotional and psychological techniques that profoundly altered somebody's ability to answer questions truthfully even if they wanted to. It truly undermined their ability to recall, so therefore it would call into question its efficacy in an intelligence-based interrogation."

He explained that "a key point that your listeners need to understand, so they can grasp the gravity of the situation, is that the primary objective of that approach to interrogation was not truth … but somebody's political truth. In the Korean War, they actually compelled some of our pilots to admit to dropping chemical weapons on cities and so forth, when in fact that didn't happen. Now, that stands in stark contrast to intelligence interrogation, where the overriding objective is provide timely, accurate, reliable, comprehensive intelligence."

There's a lesson here for domestic law enforcement. Those being interrogated, just like downed American pilots in the Korean War, can be driven to say what interrogators expect of them, even if it's a fabrication. Think it doesn't happen here? The Innocence Project ranks false confessions as one of the major causes of wrongful convictions. Consider the case of Danial Williams, wrongly convicted of murdering Michelle Bosko in 1997. The following account is taken from an academic paper by Law Professor Richard A. Leo and Professor of Psychology Deborah Davis.

Never imagining that he was a suspect, Williams willingly followed them to the police station, arriving at 6:30 pm. Police kept him waiting while they followed up with other witnesses until about 8 pm, when they undertook an interrogation that would last through the night, until after 7 am the next morning. Williams, who was exhausted and had not eaten since breakfast at around 9 am, maintained his innocence for the first ten hours as he was interrogated by three different detectives. He agreed to take a polygraph, and he was falsely told that he had "failed."

He was relentlessly accused of having sexual interest in Michelle and of raping and murdering her; he was accused of lying about his reported memories of his relationship with Michelle and his activities at the time of the murder; and he was told, falsely, that an eyewitness had seen him leave Michelle’s apartment around the time of the murder. As the interrogation continued into the wee hours of the morning, Williams became increasingly exhausted and sleep-deprived; at one point when he put his head down on the table to rest, the interrogators told him to pick it back up.

As Williams continued to deny involvement, the interrogators began to suggest that he could have "repressed" his memories of the crime—that he could have blacked out, or been sleepwalking, that he could have amnesia. Even though he had begun to doubt his own memory and to wonder if he had somehow committed the crime, he continued to resist their repeated accusations. But at around 4:50 am, a new interrogator was brought in –Detective Robert Glenn Ford.

Ford was known for his aggressive interrogation techniques, and his frequent success in inducing confessions. But he was also known for some more shady techniques, many known to enhance the risk of false confession, and had already been demoted once for coercing false confessions from three teenagers in 1990. Subsequently, he induced known false confessions in at least two more cases in 1994 and 1997.

The interview with Col Kleinman is available online, as is Leo's full paper on false confessions and wrongful convictions. Warning: what I've extracted from Leo's account is only the tip of the iceberg. Don't follow this link unless you're willing to be enraged. Until Americans recognize the folly of believing what people say when they are under duress, we'll continue to follow tragic paths based upon faulty data.

"The gavel came down on my life"

Kirk Bloodsworth, was amazed that so many people were willing to believe that he--an honorably discharged Marine with no prior arrests--raped and murdered a nine-year-old girl. But, he said, “The gavel came down on my life, and the courtroom broke into applause when I was given death.”

He spent nineteen years in prison before being exonerated.

Darryl Hunt faced a similar incarceration after being wrongly convicted of a rape and murder. The two men spoke recently in Utica, New York. Addressing a luncheon sponsored by the Oneida County Bar Association, Bloodsworth spoke of the need for law enforcement officials and prosecutors to conduct lineups and interrogations properly, and of the importance of high standards in evidence collection and preservation.

But Lawrence Golden, a past president of the Oneida County Bar Association and chairman of the Art of Innocence, said even that is not enough. “Until you change the mindset of jurors and make them believe that people do get mistakenly convicted … until the public becomes aware of these facts, regardless of changes we have in the law, wrongful convictions are going to continue.”

In the audience was Steven Barnes, who spent 19 years in prison before being exonerated late last year for a 1985 rape-murder. Barnes, who plans to begin speaking about his case as well, said, “I want people to hear my story. There are a lot more innocent people in prison than anyone realizes.”

You can read the Utica Observer-Dispatch coverage of Bloodsworth and Hunt's comments online.

Darryl Hunt's story is also the subject of a new documentary. Here's a trailer for The Trials of Darryl Hunt:

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Repealing the Death Penalty in Colorado

Whether you believe in "an eye for an eye," or that the "quality of mercy is unrestrained," you have to agree that implementation of the death penalty has been fundamentally flawed. I can't believe that anyone wants the state to execute an innocent person, but consider this fact: 131 inmates on death row have been exonerated. How many other innocents have slipped through the cracks in our crumbling system of justice?

Here's your chance to make your feelings known. Colorado is considering repealing the death penalty. Go to and take the Denver Post poll. You can be sure that Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, and other elected officials are watching the poll closely, considering the political impact as they develop their stance on this important bill to repeal the death penalty in Colorado.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Who Benefits?

Here's something for prosecutors to think about when adversarial heat gets the best of them. A quote from Stephen Salom, policy director at the Innocence Project:

"No one benefits from a wrongful conviction. Not the police, not the prosecutor, not the judge, not the jury, not the victim. The only person that really benefits is the perpetrator."

Still, it happens often. And in some cases, there is no perpetrator because there's been no crime. Take the case of Beverly Monroe, convicted of boyfriend's murder, when in fact he'd committed suicide. Surely, the effort that goes into convicting someone wrongly is considerable. There must be some perceived benefit at the time. Is it hubris? political gain? job security? or just adversarial heat?

The video embedded here shows just a few of the hundreds of exonerated who collectively have spent centuries in prison. What level of cynicism must their prosecutors (persecutors?) have possessed to have pushed for their convictions in the first place, and then--in some cases--done all that they could in the name of the people to obstruct their exoneration?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Separate police, labs because of bias

Abigail Goldman writes in Monday's Las Vegas Sun:

The National Academy of Sciences spent two years studying the state of forensic science in America. The resulting report, released in February, isn’t pretty. Forensic science is shoddy, our country’s crime labs are fragmented, forensic scientists aren’t adequately certified and the science of solving crime is dangerously inconsistent — disturbing findings that lead to perhaps the most controversial conclusion in the report: Crime labs need to be independent of law enforcement agencies because forensic scientists who work for police are prone to subtle, contextual bias.

This is different from the egregious cases of forensic investigators allegedly rubber-stamping the work of detectives — as in Los Angeles, where the police department is reviewing hundreds of fingerprint identifications after lab examiners falsely implicated at least two people in crimes.

Contextual bias is more nuanced, brought to light by research such as a 2006 study at University of Southhampton, in the U.K., where academics re-presented fingerprints to examiners who had previously studied them and, with some contextual prodding (such as saying “the suspect has confessed”), prompted the examiners to stray from their original findings.

Read the rest of Goldman's article here.

Convicted, Exonerated, then What?

CBS Sunday Morning provides some insight. Hear the story of 62 year-old Beverly Monroe, who says of her experience, "The minute you're falsely accused, your life is gone. Your life as you know it will never be the same. You lose everything that you had in a normal life. For me it was house, job, career, income, separation from my family. You lose all of those normal basics."

Take ten minutes and hear her story and those of others in this video:

Watch CBS Videos Online

Friday, April 17, 2009

Scientific Investigation of Crimes

This week Innocence Project founders Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld accepted the Thomas Jefferson Medal of Law at the University of Virginia. An receiving the award, they spoke forcefully about the need to " take the scientific method and apply it to the investigation, adjudication and post-conviction analysis of cases ." The Innocence Project, according to Neufeld, has found that in “60 percent of wrongful conviction cases [in which] forensic scientists testify for the prosecution, they provided invalid testimony — testimony that was scientifically invalid by the prevailing norms at the time.”

The University of Virginia has made a report of the award to Scheck and Neufeld online. A video is also available in a link from their podcast page.

Regular readers of BearingFalseWitness know that Todd's case was marred by forensic irregularity. In Todd's case, the knife that the state alleged to be the murder weapon changed condition while in the state's possession. Although Colorado State Deputy Attorney General Patricia Van Horn admitted state responsibility in the alteration of deposits on the knife, the state Appellate Court found no due process violation because the value of the lost evidence was only "potentially" exculpatory. Another way of looking at the decision is that the mishandled evidence only had "potential" value in determining the truth.

I wonder how many people would accept a physician's failure to perform a critical test because it only had "potential" to diagnose a medical condition.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Susan Boyle: Art, Truth, Insight, and Being Human

The majesty of art is in its power to open our minds to truths about the human condition--a phenomenon that has made Susan Boyle, a middle-aged unemployed Scotswoman, an overnight sensation. Many are moved to tears as they watch the YouTube video of Boyle winning over a skeptical audience, a crowd of eye-rolling cynics eager to laugh at her public humiliation. And then by the time she'd sung four notes, she'd won them over. In four notes, the audience relearned what they should never have forgotten, the transformative power of art. As she sang "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Mis, the lyrics touched me as I thought of our family's dream, which is also Todd's dream.

I dreamed a dream in time gone by,
When hope was high and life, worth living.
I dreamed that love would never die,
I dreamed that God would be forgiving.
Then I was young and unafraid,
And dreams were made and used and wasted.
There was no ransom to be paid,
No song unsung, no wine, untasted.

But the tigers come at night,
With their voices soft as thunder,
As they tear your hope apart,
And they turn your dream to shame.

The song ends

I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I'm living,
So different now from what it seemed...
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed...

Susan Boyle's performance, though, was not about a dream lost; rather, it was about a dream found. The irony is that had Boyle fumbled and fallen on stage, the response would have been laughter. But tears fell at the joy of seeing a dream realized, and from the sure knowledge that if Susan Boyle's dream could be realized, so could ours.

If you're not among the eight million plus who have watched Susan Boyle's performance, take a look at it.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Why Crime Labs Need to be Independent

Opinion published last week in USA Today makes it clear why crime labs need to be independent--an important recommendation from the recent report from the National Academy Sciences.

In part, the opinion piece says:

Over the past decade, in fact, scandals have ensnared more than 200 officials, from clerks to lab directors; cast doubt upon thousands of convictions, including rapes and murders; and created statewide legal tangles that have cost millions of dollars.

In a report issued in February, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) concluded that science in the justice system desperately needs an overhaul. Many necessary steps are backed by wide consensus. Among them are more money to erase huge testing backlogs and improve research, mandatory accreditation for labs and training requirements for technicians.

But one idea — moving crime labs out from under the management of law enforcement agencies — has sparked opposition from groups representing crime lab directors and managers. The NAS expert panel made the recommendation after a disturbing pattern emerged: When crime labs break the rules, through deliberate falsification or unintentional sloppiness, the results overwhelmingly favor prosecutors.

Read more here.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Thomas Cahill and Dominque Green: A Saint on Death Row

Thomas Cahill, author of A Saint on Death Row, the story of Dominque Green, was interviewed by Bob Edwards this weekend. Dominque Green was executed on October 26, 2004, in Texas for a murder he didn't commit. As I listened to the interview, I knew I'd have to write my thoughts to Bob Edwards. Here's what I sent him:

Dear Bob,

As I drove across the plains of eastern Colorado, I listened with greater intensity than usual to your interview with Thomas Cahill. My destination was the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility, a Colorado State prison, my destination every weekend as I listen to your show. After listening to your interview, I turned into the prison parking lot, walked through the prison's reception center, processed through to the visiting room, and waited for my son Todd to appear. He's serving 31 years for a murder he didn't commit.

As I sat waiting for Todd, Cahill's claim that middle-class people don't face wrongful convictions echoed. We are a family firmly rooted in the middle class. I'm an English professor at the Air Force Academy, my wife of over 40 years is a marriage and family therapist, Todd's sister is a physician.

Once, in what seems a different life, I'd have accepted Cahill's comforting claim that our middle-class status insulated us from the potential of a wrongful conviction. Experience tells me, however, that his claim is a false comfort. Once, I’d read with horror the rising number of people who’d spent years in prison for crimes they hadn’t committed before being exonerated by the Innocence Project. But it was a detached horror, something like the horror of hearing about a shark attack while sipping a latte in Denver. The horror now is palpable.

The causes of false convictions are manifold: Among them are eyewitness misidentification, the use of unreliable forensic technologies, the mishandling of evidence, false confessions, investigatory incompetence or misconduct, prosecutorial misconduct, the use of unreliable informants or snitches, and bad lawyering. Although the poverty of a defendant increases the chances for a false conviction, a misstep at any point can send criminal investigations and prosecutions arcing towards a false conviction regardless of the defendant's wealth. Only by understanding how the process fails will we find sensible remedies for a system that too often convicts the innocent.

Like many other tragedies, false convictions fall disproportionately upon the poor and those who have suffered other forms of social injustice, like Dominique Green. But our case testifies to the enduring truth of Martin Luther King’s words from forty years ago: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” All of us need to understand the personal risk we assume when we ignore a significant injustice.

Bill Newmiller

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Evidence Integrity -- NOT reports from Denver:

What a former laboratory technician said he did while working at a lab in Broomfield could call thousands of Colorado court cases into question.

Prosecutors in California are already reviewing more than 8,000 cases he might have worked on there, after a defense attorney found information about the technician's credibility.

"We are just in the early stages of figuring out the scope of what this man did," said Brian Connors, chief deputy at the Office of the Colorado Public Defender.

Thirty-year-old Aaron C. Layton worked at Forensic Laboratories in Broomfield in 2000 and 2001. The company has since relocated to Denver. It does drug and alcohol toxicology tests for numerous law enforcement agencies, county probation departments and even private businesses. While working at the lab, Layton testified in trials in Adams, Arapahoe, Jefferson and Weld Counties, and possibly others.

After Layton left the Colorado lab, employment records show he applied for a job with the police department in Columbus, Ohio in 2003. He failed the first polygraph
test. He then passed the second polygraph in which he admitted that while working at Forensic Laboratories, he never conducted second tests to confirm results. Layton said he claimed he did the confirmatory tests on his reports and said he even lied about it when on the stand.

The integrity of forensic evidence is fundamental to public trust in the judgments of our criminal system. In our son's case, crucial evidence became altered while in the state's possession, yet prosecutors were allowed to center their case on it. In George Orwell's classic work, 1984, the Ministry of Truth worked 24/7 to ensure that all recorded facts were adjusted to remain consistent with what authorities deemed to be the current reality. One has to wonder where our current reality is headed.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Witch Hunt Narrated by Sean Penn

Sunday, April 12th: Witch Hunt, a documentary film by Dana Nachman and Don Hardy and executive produced and narrated by Academy Award-winner Sean Penn will have its two-hour world television premiere on MSNBC at 10:00 p.m. ET.

In Witch Hunt, Penn tells the story of dozens of parents in Bakersfield, CA in the early 1980's, who are convicted of child molestation. Hard-working, blue-collar moms and dads with no criminal records all plead not guilty and all are convicted. The problem is that none of them actually are guilty.

From the accusations to the discovery of their innocence, Witch Hunt documents the experiences of these wrongly convicted parents and their children who falsely accuse them. Almost all of the children now say they were coerced to lie. Subsequently, their parents served anywhere from six to twenty years in prison, with the last person acquitted in 2004.

Here's the trailer for Witch Hunt:

Monday, April 06, 2009

Barney Brown, My FaceBook Friend

Earlier today, a new FaceBook friend, Barney Brown, wrote on my wall:

Perseverance truly is the key to successfully reaching the high mountain of justice....climbing this mountain gives meaning and purpose to one's life. Meaning leads to purpose and purpose leads to direction. The way will suddenly appear if you refuse to give up and keep pressing forward with conviction. I heard about your fight for justice for your son! Continue to love him unconditionally for it is so vital to fueling his ability to survive what he may be going through.

A Friend Always,

Barney Brown

Those sincere words mean even more when you consider Barney's personal journey. Take a minute and watch:

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Evidence and El Paso County Colorado

Today's Denver Post revealed charges that prosecutors in El Paso County, Colorado, withheld key evidence in the murder trial of Tim Kennedy, who has served 13 years in prison for the 1991 murders of Jennifer Carpenter, 15, and her boyfriend Steve Staskiewicz in Colorado Springs.

Post Columnist Susan Greene compares the Kennedy case to that of former Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens. US Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced the dismissal of charges against Stevens because of similar withholding of evidence by Justice Department prosecutors. The question for Colorado Springs District Attorney Dan May is whether he'll have the courage and ethical fortitude of Eric Holder and provide the same level of justice for Tim Kennedy, who is obviously less famous, powerful, and far less wealthy than the former US Senator.

Greene's column is available at

Saturday, April 04, 2009

The Exoneration of Alan Beaman

This week marks the 235th exoneration for the Innocence Project. Many other innocents have found freedom through other individuals and groups. Recently, the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwester University School of Law discussed the case of Alan Beaman, who was released after serving 13 years for the murder of his girlfriend--a crime we now know with that he did not commit. Speakers in the video below discuss what his case and cases like it can tell us about how the system can make such terrible mistakes:

Free At Last: The Exoneration of Alan Beaman from Northwestern News on Vimeo.

In Beaman's case there had been other evidence indicating that another of victim's boyfriends, identified only as John Doe, had committed the crime--evidence that had not been available to the jurors.

Prosecutors conceded they “withheld” evidence on four points:

  1. John Doe failed to complete a polygraph examination;

  2. John Doe was charged with domestic battery and drug charges before Beaman’s trial;

  3. John Doe physically abused his girlfriend on numerous occasions; and

  4. John Doe’s use of steroids had caused him to act erratically.
According to Illinois Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride, that evidence was “clearly favorable to (Beaman) in establishing (John) Doe as an alternative suspect.”

Beaman's case is of particular interest to us because Todd, like Beaman, relied upon an alternative suspect defense. Full information about the alternative suspect's failure to comply with his plea agreement, a history of sexual assault allegations against him, and other details that would impeach his credibility as a prosecution witness had been unavailable to Todd's defense.

Here's a hypothetical for you to consider: had you been a juror at Todd's trial how would your verdict have been affected by knowing that the alternate suspect
  • had been accused--more than once--of sexual assault,
  • had violated the conditions of his plea agreement, which kept him from being charged with murder,
  • had a monetary interest in Todd's conviction and personally profited from it.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Exoneration for the Privileged, Update

Apparently I'm not the only one who wonders if exoneration was easier for Ted Stevens than for those less wealthy.

Joshua Holland writes today of the Steven's case that it, "highlights the fact that we have -- and have always had -- two justice systems, one for those with the means to work it and the other for the rest of us."

Take a minute to read Holland's contrast of Stevens' with those of others who have suffered even greater misconduct at the hands of authorities, and who have spent many years behind bars--even on death row--waiting for the "the cloud to be removed," as Stevens puts it.

Holland's bottom line:

There are many differences between the facts of Stevens' case and those of Madison Hobley, Troy Davis or dozens of similar ones. But if you believe that Davis, Hobley and those others -- and their families -- would have suffered through the same years of agony if they'd been Washington power-brokers with the best legal teams money could buy, then you just don't understand the true meaning of "American justice."

Exoneration for the Privileged

That Eric Holder's dropping of charges against former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens seems to many like the right thing to do because it validates process under the law.

I wonder though.... If Steven's case hadn't been in the limelight, if he'd been a regular Joe from your town, if he'd relied upon court appointed counsel....

Let's face it. Jaws dropped when Holder's action was announced. Why? Because it is extraordinarily rare for prosecutors to give up an ill-gotten conviction. Which is why so many innocent people spend so much time in prison.

Holder's commitment to ethical standards in prosecuting need to be applauded, but, more importantly, they need to be applied across the board, not just to Senators.