Three Exonerated Men to be Awarded $8.7 Million

Maryland’s spending panel is set to award more than $8.7 million to three exonerated men who spent more than 100 combined years in prison, the Baltimore Sun reports. The Board of Public Works, which is chaired by Gov. Larry Hogan, will about $2.9 million each to Alfred Chestnut, Andrew Stewart Jr. and Ransom Watkins, who were cleared last year of the notorious 1983 murder of a Baltimore junior high school student over a Georgetown University basketball jacket. The decision comes after Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said Chestnut, Stewart and Watkins are innocent of murdering DeWitt Duckett. The ninth grader at Harlem Park Junior High School was shot in his neck in the school.

Mosby said the detective and prosecutor in 1983 coached and coerced the testimony of four students who identified Chestnut, Stewart and Watkins as the killers, and the students later recanted that testimony. Baltimore prosecutors now say police discounted interviews from other students who identified another person as the killer. “I’m delighted that these three men have been granted the compensation they deserve, but it’s awful that they had to go through a legal process to obtain this small measure of justice,” Mosby said. “I’m asking the state legislature to pass the exoneree compensation bill so that this process becomes automatic and more humane.” Maryland lawmakers are considering legislation that would require the Board of Public Works to pay wrongfully convicted prisoners within 60 days after receiving an order from an administrative law judge. It would require awards equal to the five-year average of the state’s median household income for each year of imprisonment.

via The Crime Report

March 3, 2020 at 09:53AM

The wear patterns of your jeans aren’t good forensic evidence

Is every pair of jeans like no other? According to the testimony of FBI forensic analysts, the patterns seen on denim are reliably unique and can be used to identify a suspect in surveillance footage.

The problem is, this technique has never been subjected to thorough scrutiny, and evidence acquired through it may not be as strong as it has been claimed to be. A paper published in PNAS this week puts denim-pattern analysis through its paces, finding that it isn’t particularly good at matching up identical pairs of jeans—and may create a number of “false alarm” errors to boot.

Shoddy evidence

For some time, there have been rumblings about the reliability and quality of commonly used forensic techniques. In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences published a weighty report observing that, apart from nuclear DNA analysis, “no forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source.”

The problems with forensic evidence—including fingerprint, bloodstain, and ballistics analysis—have terrible real-world consequences. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, nearly a quarter of wrongful convictions in the United States for the last 30 years can be attributed to flawed or misleading forensic evidence.

Computer scientists Sophie Nightingale and Hany Farid wanted to look at one technique in particular: photographic pattern analysis, which matches up the patterns of details on faces, hands, or clothing between suspects and crime-scene photographs. Jeans, for example, have a “barcode” pattern of dark and light splotches along their seams.

Denim barcodes

These patterns have been used as central evidence to convict people, but is this kind of analysis reliable? That hasn’t been established. To test it out, Nightingale and Farid went out to buy 100 pairs of jeans from second-hand stores. They laid the jeans out flat on a hard surface, photographed the seams along the legs, and digitally traced the pattern of light and dark points along the seams. To bump up their sample, they had Amazon Turk workers supply images from another 111 pairs, photographed using careful instructions.

Then, the researchers set about quantifying how different the patterns were across different pairs of jeans. Obviously, there’s a lot of randomness at play here—two pairs could be quite similar, just by chance, while another two pairs could be entirely different, also by chance. And most pairs would fall somewhere in the middle, with some degree of similarity. Based on these measurements, Nightingale and Farid worked out the range of similarity between the “barcode” patterns on different pairs of jeans.

The important question, of course, is whether these patterns can be used to determine whether two images show the same pair of jeans. So the researchers selected 10 pairs of jeans and took 10 photos of each using different cameras, in different lighting, and with different draping. What they found was that any given pair of photos could come back with a lot of similarities but could also come back with very different readings on the pattern. The range was broad—as Nightingale and Farid point out, soft fabric photographed in a bunch of different ways is going to have distortions that vary from one image to the next.

False alarms

So if one pair of jeans can look noticeably different in different photos, is denim-pattern analysis actually a useful forensic technique? The researchers used their measurements to estimate how often a true match would come up and how often their jeans would throw up a “false alarm“—a score that looked like a match even though the images actually came from two different pairs.

They found that the false alarm rate could be as high as one in a thousand. Given that the FBI has reported using photographic pattern analysis in hundreds of cases each year, that’s a meaningful possibility. The true match rate was also not great, at around 40 to 50 percent, depending on factors like the length of the seam being analyzed.

This means the technique of matching up jeans is likely to be pretty hit and miss—not catching actual similarities a lot of the time and possibly throwing up a high rate of false alarms. And that’s under controlled experimental conditions using high-quality images and jeans laid out nice and flat, not grainy security footage showing jeans being worn. On the other hand, different features like damage, branding, and size could corroborate an analysis to improve the evidence one way or another.

There’s more work needed on whether jeans could be analyzed in a more reliable way using additional features—and also whether other pattern analysis—like freckles on a face or patterns on other types of clothing—are similarly unreliable. But for now, write Nightingale and Farid, “identification based on denim jeans should be used with extreme caution, if at all.”

PNAS, 2020. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1917222117  (About DOIs).

via Ars Technica

February 25, 2020 at 03:30PM

Man sentenced to 15 years in prison for cocaine before test showed real identity of white substance

A homeless man arrested in Oklahoma City was sentenced to 15 years in prison on a cocaine charge before the final test results revealed the real identity of the white powder found in his backpack.

The substance was powdered milk, report the Oklahoman, USA Today and the Washington Post.

Cody Gregg had pleaded guilty last week to possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. He asked to withdraw the plea Thursday, after receiving the test results. A judge granted the request, and the case was dismissed Friday.

Gregg told a judge that he pleaded guilty because he disliked the Oklahoma County Jail, where he had been held since August. According to the Washington Post, the jail is known for issues such as overcrowding and mold.

Initial color-changing drug tests had identified the white powder as cocaine. Such tests have a high error rate and have misidentified foods such as chocolate chip cookies and breath mints as dangerous drugs, according to the Washington Post.

Gregg was arrested after he pedaled away on his bicycle from an officer who tried to stop him because the bike did not have rear lights. He has previous arrests for possession of marijuana and methamphetamine, and he was on probation when he was arrested Aug. 12.

By Debra Cassens Weiss

via ABA Journal Daily News

October 17, 2019 at 02:34PM

Trump Won’t Apologize for Central Park Five Role

President Trump doubled down on his controversial stance on the Central Park Five, a group of black and Latino teenagers who were wrongly convicted of an assault on a white female jogger in Central Park in 1989, USA Today reports. Trump was asked by American Urban Radio Networks reporter April Ryan whether he’d apologize to the men for taking out newspaper ads calling for their execution. All five were exonerated in 2002 after Matias Reyes confessed to raping the woman, a statement backed up by DNA evidence.

At first, Trump was defensive, asking Ryan, “Why would you bring that question up now? It’s an interesting time to bring it up.” The reporter responded that there were “movies and everything about them,” referring a new Netflix TV series about the Central Park Five. “You have people on both sides of that. They admitted their guilt,” Trump said. “If you look at Linda Fairstein and if you look at some of the prosecutors, they think that the city should never have settled that case. So we’ll leave it at that.” Fairstein, the top New York City sex crimes prosecutor at the time, has come under scrutiny in the Netflix series, entitled, “When They See Us.” Trump spent $85,000 to take out a newspaper ad calling for the teenagers’ executions.

via The Crime Report

June 19, 2019 at 08:45AM

Under Fire, Central Park Five Prosecutor Steps Down From Columbia Law

Controversial prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer on Wednesday resigned her post as a lecturer at Columbia Law School, under pressure from the Black Law Students Association and others who objected to her role in the Central Park Five case—in which five black and Latino boys were wrongfully convicted of a 1989 rape.

In an email to the law school community Wednesday evening, dean Gillian Lester wrote that Lederer told her she would not seek reappointment to her lecturer post. That decision comes just one day after the Black Law Students Association sent a letter to the administration, calling for her to step down and for the school to be more inclusive in its teaching.

A week earlier, a campus-wide organization for black students at Columbia released a petition demanding that Lederer be fired. The new Netflix miniseries about the Central Park Five case, “When They See Us,” has renewed interest in the case and increased scrutiny of those involved in the prosecution. Lederer, alongside Linda Fairstein, tried the case.

“I’ve enjoyed my years teaching at [Columbia Law School], and the opportunity it has given me to interact with the many fine students who elected to take my classes,” Lederer said in a statement included in Lester’s email. “However, given the nature of the recent publicity generated by the Netflix portrayal of the Central Park case, it is best for me not to renew my teaching application.”

It’s unclear how many years Lederer taught at the school, though her profile on the school’s website say she taught trial practice. According to that bio, she is senior trial counsel in the forensic and cold case unit in the New York County District Attorney’s Office. In that role, Lederer reviews and reinvestigates unsolved murder and rape cases, it says.

“The mini-series has reignited a painful—and vital—national conversation about race, identity, and criminal justice,” Lester wrote in her email. “I am deeply committed to fostering a learning environment that furthers this important and ongoing dialogue, one that draws upon the lived experiences of all members of our community and actively confronts the most difficult issues of our time.”

via – Newswire

June 13, 2019 at 08:18AM

The Groveland Four: Racism, ‘Miscarriage of Justice’ and the Press

Belated mea culpas were issued last week to the Groveland Four, young black men subjected to racist vigilantism following a dubious rape allegation 70 years ago in Florida.

On Friday, the Florida Board of Executive Clemency pardoned the men, two years after their descendants received an official apology from the state legislature.

“I don’t know that there’s any way you can look at this case and think that those ideals of justice were satisfied,”  said Florida Gov. DeSantis.

“Indeed, they were perverted time and time again, and I think the way this was carried out was a miscarriage of justice.”

The Orlando Sentinel, whose vitriolic owner was the spearhead of inciteful press coverage, weighed in with an apology of its own:

“We’re sorry for the Orlando Sentinel’s role in this injustice. We’re sorry that the newspaper at the time did between little and nothing to seek the truth. We’re sorry that our coverage of the event and its aftermath lent credibility to the cover-up and the official, racist narrative.”

The pardon came after a dramatic, hour-long meeting  during which the families of the men accused of the assault told DeSantis and his three-member Cabinet – meeting as the clemency board – that there is overwhelming evidence the men were innocent and there was no rape, reported USA Today.

The woman, who was 17 when she said she was raped, sat in a wheelchair and later told Gov. DeSantis and the Cabinet the rape did indeed happen, saying she was dragged from a car, had a gun put to her head and was told not to scream or they would “blow your brains out.”

At one point, the two sides briefly clashed. Beverly Robinson, a niece of one of the Groveland Four, was speaking to the governor and the Cabinet when she turned to the woman and her sons.

“It never happened. You all are liars,” Robinson said.

“That’s enough out of you,” the woman said.

“I know it’s enough out of me. It’s always enough when you’re telling the truth,” Robinson replied.

Five years ago, TCR’s David J. Krajicek looked into journalism’s role in the case—both the rabid local coverage and the crucial attention from northern newspapers that shed light on the scandal.

His report, part of a series of case studies commissioned by John Jay’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice, examining “how ‘mob journalism’ and media ‘tunnel vision’ turn journalists into tools of the prosecution,” was published in February 2014.

A full copy of the report can be downloaded here.

via The Crime Report

January 14, 2019 at 10:25AM

Orlando Sentinel Apologizes for Coverage of 1949 Rape

In an editorial, the Orlando Sentinel apologized for its coverage 70 years ago of four black men accused of raping a white woman. The official version of the story was that in the pre-dawn hours of July 16, 1949, a white couple’s car broke down on a lonely road. Four black men drove up and offered to help but then beat the man, kidnapped his wife, and raped her. Two of the alleged assailants among the “Groveland Four” were killed, one by a sheriff. The Sentinel says, “The story had many more ugly twists and turns marked by lies, cover-ups and injustice.”

In its editorial, the newspaper said, “We’re sorry for the Orlando Sentinel’s role in this injustice. We’re sorry that the newspaper at the time did between little and nothing to seek the truth. We’re sorry that our coverage of the event and its aftermath lent credibility to the cover-up and the official, racist narrative.” The paper published on the front page a cartoon that showed four empty electric chairs for the assailants. A U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning the convictions of two of the defendants cited the Sentinel’s electric chairs cartoon as one of the factors that should have led to a change of venue in the men’s original trial. The newspaper says the “Groveland Four coverage then would not happen today. Reporters and editors at the Sentinel are expected to question official versions of events, not to blindly accept them.”

via The Crime Report

January 11, 2019 at 09:46AM

Trio Wins $15M For Wrongful  Convictions

Three men wrongfully imprisoned for more than 20 years have won a $15 million verdict against East Cleveland, a municipality long known as being financially distressed, and where police abuses formed part of the focus for a popular podcast, reports 

A federal jury awarded Derrick Wheatt, Laurese Glover and Eugene Johnson $5 million each on claims that detectives investigating the murder for which they were convicted withheld potentially exculpatory evidence from prosecutors and used improper photo array techniques to identify the three as the prime suspects. In the same suburb, a man won a $22 million verdict in state court in 2016 after police allegedly beat him and locked him in a closet for several days. 
Read more… 

Court Vacates 11,000 More Convictions in MA Based on Former Drug Lab Employee’s Misconduct

Massachusetts’ top court issued another sweeping dismissal order stemming from misconduct by a former chemist at the Amherst, Ma., drug lab and two former state prosecutors, the Boston Globe reports. The order vacates an estimated 11,000 convictions in 7,700 criminal cases, most of them from Hampden County. “Today, the burden of an unjust criminal conviction has been lifted off the shoulders of thousands of people, people who can now apply for jobs and housing and move forward with their lives,” said public defender Rebecca Jacobstein of the Committee for Public Counsel. The order is the latest development in the Amherst drug lab scandal. In January 2013, former lab chemist Sonja Farak was arrested on charges of stealing from the evidence locker to feed her own addictions. After pleading guilty, Farak was sentenced to 18 months in jail. The scandal was compounded by misconduct by two former prosecutors from the Massachusetts attorney general’s office. A judge ruled Anne Kaczmarek and Kris Foster, who worked under former attorney general Martha Coakley and have since left the office, blocked defense attorneys from obtaining key evidence about Farak’s drug use. The thousands of cases vacated on Thursday are those that were voluntarily dismissed by the state’s 11 district attorneys after litigation brought on behalf of “Farak defendants.”

Read more…