Why Did It Take 47 Years to Prove Anthony Mazza was Innocent?

In April 1973, Anthony Mazza was sentenced to life in prison without parole for a murder in Boston. Last June, at the age of 73, he was released after his conviction was vacated  because his trial lawyer was denied key evidence that points to his innocence.

Charges were dismissed in March, and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court vacated the case in April. Two months later, Mazza became the 2,800th American defendant listed in the National Registry of Exonerations.

He spent more than 47 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, longer than any other American exoneree, but his case received so little attention that it took months to track down the details.

It’s hard to imagine spending decades in prison for a crime you did not commit—but Mazza is not alone.

Gross

Prof. Samuel Gross

The Registry includes nine other innocent defendants who were released after more than 40 years in prison, 60 who spent at least 30 years in prison, 184 who were imprisoned for more than 25 years each. All told, the 2,800 exonerated defendants we know about spent more than 25,000 years in prison.

For most of the time that Anthony Mazza was in prison, he had no legal assistance. His attorney on appeal did not even ask that his conviction be reversed, only that his sentence be reduced because of his supposed “mental retardation.” That appeal was rejected quickly, in 1974.

For the next 32 years, Mazza pursued justice on his own, and did so with determination and effectiveness that’s hard to square with intellectual disability.

The only witness who directly connected Mazza to the murder was Robert Anderson, an acquaintance in whose apartment the body was found, who drove the victim’s stolen car for days after the killing, who gave items of the victim’s property to others—but who testified that Mazza alone was the killer.

Framing an Innocent Friend

Anderson’s statements about the killing were contradictory and his testimony was inconsistent. Mazza, who had an alibi, always maintained that Anderson himself was the killer. That’s a familiar story. There are at least a dozen other exonerations in the Registry in which a murderer avoided punishment by framing an innocent acquaintance or friend.

Between 1977 and 1995, Anthony Mazza, with no legal help, filed four petitions to reopen his case. They were based in part on affidavits from several men who met Anderson in prison, where he served time for other crimes, and stated under oath that Anderson told them that he had framed Mazza for murder. All four petitions were denied—or worse, ignored.

In 2006, Mazza filed a fifth motion, including a new item: a statement that Anderson’s brother gave to the police in 1972, describing conduct and statements by Anderson that strongly support the claim that Anderson was the killer. Mazza’s lawyer had not seen that statement before his trial. It took Mazza years to get a copy from the Boston police department, once he learned he was entitled to it.

After that, things began to change for Mazza’s case, but at a snail’s pace.

In 2006, a judge appointed a lawyer to represent him. In 2009, that lawyer filed a sixth motion to reconsider the conviction. That motion travelled through the Massachusetts courts, from bottom to top, twice. Finally—after 11 more years, with no change in the evidence—the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts reversed Mazza’s conviction because this undisclosed 1972 witness statement undermined the integrity of the jury’s judgment.

This is a common pattern. Withholding evidence of innocence is the most frequent type of government misconduct in trials of innocent defendants. It happened in 61 percent of murder exonerations.

 Living Past Exoneration

Anthony Mazza’s exoneration was hardly preordained.

For one thing, prison is very bad for one’s health. By one estimate, a year in prison reduces a person’s life expectancy by about two years. Mazza is fortunate to have lived long enough to be freed; let’s hope he has a chance to enjoy his freedom.

Olin Coones spent 12 years in prison in Kansas for a murder he did not commit. He was exonerated in 2020, but died less than four months later from health conditions that were not diagnosed or treated in prison.

In addition, all copies of the hidden witness statement that freed Anthony Mazza might have been lost or destroyed before he obtained one. Or the courts might have continued to ignore or deny his claims despite this new evidence. Or Mazza, working without expert help, might never have learned how to obtain public records.

Or he might simply have given up, as many innocent prisoners do.

The most important lesson from the (as of June) 2,808 exonerations in the National Registry is that the great majority of innocent defendants who are convicted of crimes are never exonerated.

Ken Otterbourg

Ken Otterbourg

Why, for example, are defendants who are sentenced to death exonerated about six times more often as defendants—like Mazza—who are convicted of murder but sentenced to life imprisonment?

It’s not because those sentenced to death are six times more likely to be innocent. It’s because defense lawyers, prosecutors, judges, governors and journalists work hard to identify innocent defendants who might be executed.

In particular, unlike Mazza, almost all defendants sentenced to death have lawyers as long as they remain on death row. Few innocent defendants who are imprisoned for life have access to lawyers, and most remain and die in prison.

If we can’t stop convicting the innocent we should at least acknowledge that we do make these terrible mistakes, and take substantial claims of innocence seriously from the start.

We must pay attention when significant new evidence of innocence is presented, not ignore it because the case is closed. And the cases of prisoners who might be innocent should go to the front of the line for decision, not the back, so those who are innocent are freed before they reach old age or die.

Don’t confuse what happened to Anthony Mazza with justice. It’s not.

Samuel Gross, Professor of Law Emeritus at the University of Michigan, is co-founder and senior editor of the National Registry of Exonerations. Ken Otterbourg, a former journalist, is a researcher at the National Registry of Exonerations.

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June 30, 2021 at 07:38AM

National Registry of Exonerations reports on “25,000 Years Lost to Wrongful Convictions”

I saw this notable new report from the folks at the National Registry of Exonerations titled “25,000 Years Lost to Wrongful Convictions.”  here is part of the start of the report:

In 2018, the National Registry of Exonerations reported a grim milestone: Exonerated defendants had collectively served 20,000 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. Just three years later, in June 2021, we reached another: Time lost to false convictions exceeded 25,000 years.  The total now stands at 25,004 years, on average more than 8 years and 11 months in prison for each of the 2,795 exonerees in the Registry.  Innocent Black defendants served a majority of that time — a total of 14,525 years lost to unjust imprisonment.

The National Registry of Exonerations reports every known exoneration in the United States since 1989, a total of 2,795 as of June 1, 2021.  Dozens of defendants exonerated since our 2018 report served more than 25 years in prison for crimes they did not commit….  Not all of the exonerees who served many years for crimes they did not commit were convicted of violent crimes like murder or rape. Lawrence Martin spent nearly 19 years in California prisons for possession of a knife with a locking blade….

It is hard to fathom spending decades in prison, knowing all the while that you are innocent.  But even those who served relatively short sentences suffered tremendously.  People often refer to the time we have spent in 2020 and 2021 under COVID-19 restrictions as a “lost year.”  We’ve missed the ability to travel freely, socialize with friends, and see loved ones. For people wrongfully incarcerated, every year is a lost year.  To exonerees who served sentences of a year or two for crimes they did not commit, it must have felt like an eternity.  For those who served decades, the suffering is incomprehensible.

Unfortunately, the 2,795 exonerations we know about only begin to tell the story of wrongful convictions and the toll they take.  Many exonerations remain unknown to us, though we keep looking. The vast majority of false convictions go uncorrected and therefore are never counted.  Our calculation also does not include time lost to the thousands of people cleared in large-scale group exonerations, which arise when groups of defendants are cleared upon the discovery of a common pattern of systemic misconduct by a government official in the investigation and prosecution of their cases.  Finally, our calculations include only time spent in prison after the wrongful conviction and consequently do not capture the significant time lost in custody awaiting trial.  Put simply, while 25,000 years is a staggering number, it is a significant undercount of the true losses these falsely convicted men and women suffered.

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June 15, 2021 at 04:54PM

Man Imprisoned for Three Decades Based on ‘Bite Marks’ Exonerated of Murder

Michigan AG Dana Nessel

Locked up for more than three decades for murder, Gilbert Lee Poole, Jr. had been serving a life sentence since 1989 based largely on a form of forensic evidence once widely used but no longer deemed reliable: bite mark analysis. Now that DNA evidence has ruled him out as the killer, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel (D) hailed his exoneration as the debut act of her two-year-old Conviction Integrity Unit.

“When we established this team in 2019, we made a commitment to ensuring those convicted of state crimes are in fact guilty while also providing justice to those wrongfully imprisoned,” Nessel said in a statement. “I appreciate the tireless work the unit put in alongside the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project to reach this outcome for Mr. Poole.”

The attorney general made the announcement during a press conference on Wednesday morning, shortly after a judge vacated Poole’s convictions during a Zoom hearing.

“I have to say that I didn’t understand what was happening back in 1988 when I came to court to be tried for a murder I didn’t commit,” Poole said during that hearing, according to his lawyers. “At 22 years old, and a thousand miles away from anyone I knew, I kicked and screamed and stomped my feet and said ‘This is not right.’”

According to Michigan Department of Corrections records, Poole will leave the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility a 56-year-old man.

Gilbert Lee Poole

Michigan Department of Corrections photo of Gilbert Lee Poole.

Poole’s case stemmed from the disappearance of Robert Mejia, whose fatally stabbed body was found in Pontiac, Michigan, some 20 miles northwest of Detroit, on June 7, 1988. Several people who last saw Mejia leaving the bar with an unidentified man provided descriptions used for composite drawings that ran in Oakland County’s press.

According to Nessel’s office, the trail ran cold for months until Poole’s then-girlfriend implicated him in the murder that November, leading to his arrest and ultimate conviction. But the case against Poole largely relied upon since-discredited bite mark analysis, with an expert testifying that Poole’s teeth matched the marks on Mejia’s body.

In 2009, some two decades into Poole’s sentence, the National Academy of Sciences released a groundbreaking report titled “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward,” which found “a high percentage of false positive matches of bite marks using controlled comparison studies.”

“No thorough study has been conducted of large populations to establish the uniqueness of bite marks; theoretical studies promoting the uniqueness theory include more teeth than are seen in most bite marks submitted for comparison,” the report states. “There is no central repository of bite marks and patterns.”

Another decade would pass before Nessel’s election as Michigan attorney general and her speedy establishment of the conviction integrity unit.

Poole’s lawyer Marla Mitchell-Cichon of the Western Michigan University Cooley Law School Innocence Project said her client’s conviction was based on “unreliable evidence.”

“I commend the Michigan Attorney General and her establishment of a conviction integrity unit that will investigate claims of innocence and uncover the truth,” Mitchell-Cichon wrote in a statement.

Recounting himself studying, reading and learning law from behind bars, Poole described a spiritual awakening before the breakthrough in his case.

“It wasn’t until I surrendered to a higher power and God stepped in and sent me a band of angels to look past the rules and regulations and looked to see who was standing in the furnace,” Poole said in a statement. “I was standing in the furnace. I didn’t belong here.”

Nessel says her conviction integrity unit has received more than 1,300 requests for assistance.

(Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

The post Man Imprisoned for Three Decades Based on ‘Bite Marks’ Exonerated of Murder by Michigan AG’s Conviction Integrity Unit first appeared on Law & Crime.

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May 26, 2021 at 12:39PM

‘Witnesses are Often Wrong’: The Case Against Eyewitness ID

According to the Innocence Project, mistaken identifications are the leading factor in wrongful convictions, accounting for almost 70 percent of the wrongful convictions overturned by post-conviction DNA evidence.

Thomas D. Albright, director of the Vision Center Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, listed some of the many variables affecting eyewitness testimony in a 2017 paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, entitled Why Eyewitnesses Fail.”  

The variables include: viewing conditions (lighting-distance-duration), distracting stimuli (weapons-loud noises) and internal states of the observer (attention-motivation-skill-prejudice).

Albright explains that witness misidentifications are essentially failures of visual perception (seeing things accurately) or failures of memory (lack of precision in storage and recall).

I can vouch for the truth of his observations, having been involved in several cases dealing with witness misidentifications while representing both plaintiffs and defendants.

One of my clients, Cleve Heidelberg, was convicted in 1970 of killing a Peoria County, Ill., sheriff’s deputy who was responding to a call about an armed robbery at a drive-in movie theatre. After killing the officer, the shooter fled the scene and a high-speed car chase ensued.

The shooter wound up crashing the car and escaping on foot. The shooter had borrowed Heidelberg’s car, and when Heidelberg went to retrieve his car later that night he was arrested by officers at the scene. Several police officers reported and later testified at Heidelberg’s criminal trial that they observed him driving the subject vehicle as it sped past them at various points during the chase.

The reliability of these alleged identifications was suspect, since the officers would have had only a fraction of a second to observe the driver whizz by them at a high rate of speed at night. Yet, based on, among other things, this powerful purported eyewitness evidence, Heidelberg was convicted.

Incredibly, prior to Heidelberg’s sentencing, the real shooter, James Clark, confessed to the crime, but the confession fell on deaf ears and Heidelberg was sentenced to 99 to 175 years in prison. He served 47 years in prison before his conviction was vacated in 2018.

Perhaps one of the most striking examples of the flaws in eyewitness testimony is the case of Jerry Miller, who was convicted of rape, robbery and kidnapping in 1982.

In the Miller case, a woman was raped in her car in a parking garage in downtown Chicago. After the rape, with the victim now locked in the trunk, the rapist attempted to drive the woman’s vehicle out of the parking garage but was prevented from doing so by the two parking lot attendants who recognized the victim’s car and noticed that she was not driving it.

The perpetrator had a brief conversation with the parking lot attendants and then fled the scene.

The parking lot attendants provided a description of the driver to a police sketch artist and the sketch was published in a daily police bulletin. Two police officers thought the sketch resembled Miller, a man they had questioned a few days earlier. Miller was placed in a lineup and one of the parking lot attendants positively identified Miller; the other parking lot attendant tentatively identified him.

Miller was ultimately charged with rape, robbery and kidnapping. At his criminal trial, both parking lot attendants identified Miller as the perpetrator. Miller was convicted and sentenced to 52 years in prison.

But in 2006, DNA testing on the victim’s slip exonerated Miller and established the identify of another man, Robert Weeks, as the real perpetrator. At the time of his release, Jerry Miller had served over 26 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

What the cases of Miller and Heidelberg highlight is that witnesses are often wrong.

The person they think was the perpetrator in fact had nothing to do with the crime. This can be true even in situations where the witness has an ample opportunity to observe the offender. In Miller’s case, the two parking lot attendants were immediately suspicious when the victim’s car approached the ticket booth. The victim, a white female, parked her car in that garage every day and the attendants noticed that as the car approached there was an unknown black male driving the car.

The attendants were also able to have a brief conversation with the driver before he fled on foot. Nonetheless, the attendants mistakenly identified Miller in a subsequent police lineup.

(Sometimes there is an issue of racial bias connected with eyewitness misidentification, but this was not a factor as the parking lot attendants were also African American.)

In other cases, the circumstances of a purported witness identification may be flimsy; yet the prosecutors still rely on that identification, which is then presented as rock-solid evidence at trial.

Improper lineup procedures can also lead to witness misidentifications. The other individuals placed in a lineup with the suspect (known as “fillers”) are supposed to reasonably resemble the suspect in terms of age, height and weight so that the suspect does not stand out.

This is not always the case. When proper procedures are not followed, the potential for error exists.

The ‘Starved Rock Murders’

I am currently involved in another case in which the failings of witness identification are starkly evident.

Charles Weger

Charles Weger. Still photo courtesy Chicago Tribune video.

Chester Weger was convicted in 1961 of the notorious “Starved Rock Murders,” in which three women were brutally killed and their bodies left in a park located in LaSalle County, Illinois about two hours southwest of Chicago. He served 61 years in prison before being released on parole in February 2020.

Until he was released on parole, the 81-year-old Weger ranked as the second longest-held inmate in Illinois’ prison system. Weger’s attorneys, Celeste Stack and I, continue to seek to prove Chester’s innocence and are seeking to review and analyze the physical evidence and are working to be able to conduct forensic testing on some of that evidence.

Police said they believed Weger was a suspect in a rape that had occurred a few years earlier. He was 19 at the time of that attack. In an effort to overwhelm Chester and break him down, he was placed in a lineup regarding two incidents that took place in 1959 in a nearby State Park called Deer Park, one of which was that rape case and the other was a purse snatching.

The lineup photo from one of these lineups shows how suggestive it was: The other four men in the lineup were much older and bigger than Chester. This created an inherent bias that made the lineup unfair, and likely affected the victim’s subsequent identification.

Witness misidentifications can affect both plaintiffs and defendants. A witness may mistakenly identify a criminal suspect. Similarly, a witness may mistakenly perceive the circumstances of a crime or event, such as a car accident.

andy hale

Andy Hale

Chester denied having anything to do with these other crimes but was identified by the victims based on these suggestive procedures. Thus, Chester was charged with three separate felonies as a way to overwhelm him and break him down.

Law enforcement officers, prosecutors, attorneys, and jurors need to realize that just because a witness says so does not make it so. A full and fair examination of all the circumstances of the subject crime, and all the evidence involved, is necessary.

Additional Reading: Truth, Lies and Police Lineups, The Crime Report, May 5, 2021.

Andy Hale is a civil rights attorney, specializing in wrongful convictions in Chicago, Illinois. He is the founder of Hale & Monico, America’s Justice Attorneys. Hale is an Emmy-nominated executive producer for several true-crime documentaries highlighting wrongful convictions. 

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May 24, 2021 at 07:23AM

Freeing of Mississippi Death Row Prisoner After 26 Years Exposes Unreliability of Bite-Mark Evidence

A Mississippi man sentenced to death row for the murder of an 82-year-old woman in 1992 has been exonerated after bite mark evidence submitted by prosecutors was found to be faulty, revealing a historical reliance of the courts on now-discredited “bite-mark science,” reports the Mississippi Free Press. In 1994, Mississippi’s 16th Circuit Court Judge Lee Howard sentenced Eddie Lee Howard to die by lethal injection at the notorious Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman based almost entirely on bite mark evidence provided by Dr. Michael West, at that time considered one of the leading experts in bite-mark identification. However, following West’s testimony at Howard’s hearing, questions about his credibility, and bite-mark identification in general, began to surface. In Mississippi, Howard became at least the seventh person to be either wrongfully charged or convicted, and later exonerated, due to Dr. West’s evidence. After his peers accused him of ethics violations, Dr. West resigned from the International Association of Identification in 1993 and the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in 1994.

Dr. West’s bite-mark science has led to innocent people spending at least a combined 75 years in jail, the Innocence Project reports. The Mississippi Supreme Court decided on Aug. 27, 2020, to grant Howard a new trial due largely in part to questions about Dr. West’s evidence. Lowndes County District Attorney Scott Colom has committed to not using bite-mark evidence in current and future cases and, based on what he deemed to be unreliable bite-mark evidence and new DNA information that excluded Howard as a suspect, ruled that his office could not possibly retry Howard for murder due to lack of evidence. DA Colom’s decision is in line with former President Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology September 2016 report, which concluded that forensic bite-mark evidence is “not scientifically valid.” Recently, calls have arisen for Dr. West to face trial in order to be held accountable for his incorrect testimonies.

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February 24, 2021 at 11:25AM

Innocence Project Client Rosa Jimenez Released After 17 Years in Prison

Rosa Jimenez was released this evening after more than 17 years in prison for a crime she did not commit. Today, the Honorable Karen Sage of the 299th District Travis County Trial Court issued a decision in Ms. Jimenez’s habeas petition granting her relief based on false forensic testimony and ineffective assistance of counsel at her 2005 trial for the murder of a 21-month-old child in her care.

In her decision, Judge Sage stated that, “There was no crime committed here … Ms. Jimenez is innocent,” and added, “I cannot give Ms. Jimenez justice today, but hopefully I can give her the inalienable right that she has been deprived of for far too long: her freedom.”

Ms. Jimenez has always maintained her innocence and has said the child’s death was a tragic accident and not murder. Top pediatric airway specialists testified that the medical findings are supportive of an accidental death and Ms. Jimenez has been wrongfully convicted of a crime that never occurred.

“There was no crime committed here … Ms. Jimenez is innocent.”

“I just want to say thank you to all the people that stood behind me all these years: the Innocence Project … the [Mexican] consulate, José Garza, and all those people that stood behind me,” Ms. Jimenez said following her release. “Thank you so much and I am just going to try to live my life with my kids”.

Speaking in Spanish about the moment she was told she would be released, Ms. Jimenez said, “I could not even believe it until I just walked out the door and it was the first moment I felt it was true,” at a press conference this evening. “It all seemed like a dream and it’s not.”

Earlier today, Judge Sage ordered that Ms. Jimenez be released from prison due to urgent health and safety concerns. Ms. Jimenez is suffering from advanced Stage 4 kidney disease and is particularly vulnerable to fatal complications from COVID-19.

Judge Sage granted habeas relief and ordered the release of Ms. Jimenez.

“Next week her daughter is getting married and I think it couldn’t be a more profound statement of everything she has missed out on, everything that was taken away from her and her family,” her attorney Vanessa Potkin said.

“I could not even believe it until I just walked out the door.”

“It is a huge victory for her to walk out that door. Earlier today we were told that ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] officers had picked her up at Mountain View prison and had taken her in a car and said ‘we’re taking you to Mexico and doing an expedited deportation’. And today she is walking out and is going to be able to remain in Austin until she is fully vindicated and to reconnect with her children.”

Ms. Jimenez’s daughter was just 1 year old when she was wrongly incarcerated.

“I’m so excited after all this time I’m going to make it [to her wedding] … the most important time of her life and I’m going to be there — that’s exciting,” Ms. Jimenez said.

Her first stop after being released won’t be her home, but church.

“I don’t want to go home, I want to go to church. That’s the first thing I want to do before I want to do anything else,” she said.

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January 27, 2021 at 03:35PM

Innocence Project Calls for Policy Reforms in Wake of Landmark Report on 25 Wrongful Convictions in Brooklyn

Today, the Kings County District Attorney’s Office released a landmark report examining how and why the KCDA’s Conviction Review Unit (CRU) in Brooklyn, New York, agreed to exonerate 25 wrongly convicted people in a five-year period (between 2014-2019).

These 25 wrongly convicted persons served a staggering 426 years in prison before their exonerations. And virtually all of them — 24 out of 25 — were Black and/or Latinx. They served an average of over 17 years in prison; the one white exoneree, a victim of a politically motivated election fraud prosecution, served no prison time. The report also finds that the evidence police gathered against many of these exonerees was clearly flawed from the outset — raising obvious questions about why so many Brooklyn citizens of color were prosecuted at all, and why none of the system’s actors stepped in to halt these prosecutions or rectify them for decades.

The report forthrightly addresses the grievous errors – including outright misconduct in a number of cases — by both police and prosecutors that tainted the vast majority of these cases. We know that, for many reasons, retrospective investigations of official misconduct will always yield an undercount. For example, evidence supporting a claim of innocence that is intentionally suppressed by law enforcement is designed to stay hidden — and often does. But those limitations make the errors and misconduct that were found by the CRU all the more undeniable. For example, the reinvestigations by the KCDA’s own CRU staff revealed that:

  • Misconduct and/or serious error by prosecutors was the most common factor in these wrongful convictions, occurring in at least 84% of the 25 cases.
  • “Police conduct” was the next most common factor and was present in 72% of the exonerees’ cases.
  • Failure to disclose favorable evidence to the defense — by prosecutors, police, or both — was a factor in 40% of these exonerees’ cases. (This factor was independent of — and/or in addition to — other police and prosecutorial conduct cited by the CRU.)
  • False or unreliable confessions were used to wrongly convict over one-third (36%) of these 25 exonerees, and in many cases was the only direct evidence against them.
  • Eyewitness Misidentification was a contributing factor in the wrongful convictions of one-fifth (20%) of the 25 exonerated people.

The KCDA, the Innocence Project, and the law firm of WilmerHale co-authored the report, and the Innocence Project designed the research tool that was used to gather and analyze the data.

Many prosecutors around the nation have formed “conviction review” or “conviction integrity” units in recent years. These are specialized, independent units whose sole focus is to reexamine and reinvestigate claims of wrongful conviction. But today’s report constitutes the first public examination ever commissioned by any elected prosecutor in the United States of the reasons why its own office made the decision to throw out more than two dozen deeply flawed convictions in its own county. It is also the first time an elected district attorney has ever allowed outside researchers — much less staff from an innocence organization — to analyze documents from its own files regarding that process.

The result is a groundbreaking report that, for the first time, provides a window into how and why one prosecutor’s office came to acknowledge the injustices earlier perpetrated in its own county against so many of its own citizens.

The report is necessarily limited by its exclusive focus on the CRU’s own investigations and conclusions. The CRU’s conclusions reflect its own view of these cases, based on the evidence it had available and/or considered significant at the time. We recognize that many of these wrongly convicted persons and their advocates may have very different perspectives on why they were sent to prison for crimes they did not commit, and that key facts about these cases and the officials involved may not be included here.

However, there are still profound takeaways from this report for all who seek to fix our broken criminal legal system, particularly since it constitutes the district attorney’s own acknowledgment of what went grievously wrong in these cases and its devastating human toll.

While there have been some gains in reforming the criminal justice system in New York State to prevent future miscarriages of justice like these, the report provides a good roadmap for modifications to existing reforms and the need to promote new changes to the criminal justice system through law and policy. These include:

  • Banning Police Deception/Assessing Reliability of Confession Evidence. Addressing the legally permitted use of deception by law enforcement in the interrogation room and assessing the reliability of confession evidence before it is introduced. New York State Senator Zellnor Myrie, also from Brooklyn, has introduced SB6806, which would prohibit law enforcement’s use of “false facts” during interrogations and assure that when judges assess the voluntariness of a confession, they also assess its reliability before allowing it to be used in court.
  • Rejecting Repeated Presentations of the Same Person When Witnesses are Asked to Identify a Suspect /Requiring Witnesses to Rate How Confident They are When an Identification is Made. In several cases, the same suspect was presented to the eyewitness in more than one identification procedure, such as a view in a mug book, a show-up, or one-on-one identification procedure, or a photographic or live lineup with multiple potential suspects. This has been shown to increase the possibility of a misidentification of an innocent person because of what is known as “commitment effect” or misplaced familiarity. Multiple identification procedures of the same suspect should never be permitted during the course of an investigation.
  • The level of confidence an eyewitness expressed at the time of an identification is critically important to capture. The level of confidence an eyewitness might initially describe at the time he or she identifies someone as the perpetrator of a crime can be artificially inflated through any sort of confirming feedback, so that by the time the eyewitness takes the witness stand, he or she is 100% confident in the identification she/he has made. All police agencies should implement the policy of taking an immediate confidence statement — where the witness is asked in his or her own words how certain they are of the identification they have made — at the time when an identification is first made. While versions of these reforms are included in an advisory policy in New York State, they should be mandated and uniformly adopted across the State. Also, given the lack of evidentiary value offered by an in-court identification, they should no longer be permitted.
  • Assuring Police and Prosecutorial Accountability. New York recently repealed Civil Rights Law 50-a, which had shielded police misconduct records from the public. Now that this law has passed, police agencies should readily provide this information to the public, without requiring Freedom of Information Law requests, and immediate action should be taken to remove law enforcement with histories of perjury and excessive force from police agencies. New York should also finally allow the nation’s first-ever Commission on Prosecutorial Conduct to begin its important work; the independent commission was enacted into law in 2019 but has been ensnared in court challenges which will require either judicial resolution or legislative action to resolve.
  • Prosecutors’ offices should better assess the integrity of the evidence they may use in a criminal case. The report’s authors noted that many of the 25 wrongful conviction cases might not have moved forward had trial prosecutors and their supervisors more thoroughly assessed the reliability of the evidence presented to them by law enforcement — including eyewitness accounts, confessions, informant claims, and forensic evidence. For example, the report cites numerous cases where a “confession” or an informant’s statement simply did not fit the physical evidence or failed to comport with eyewitness accounts of the crime. While each of these cases represent a systemic breakdown at every step of the process, many red flags became apparent in the review of these cases that should have been heeded, and opportunities to prevent the cases from becoming wrongful convictions were missed.

The Innocence Project commends District Attorney Eric Gonzalez for making these detailed findings public, and for the report’s forthright acknowledgment that “[t]he wrongful convictions discussed here all point to failures of prosecution as an institution — whether through the acts of individual prosecutors, collective decisions, or failure to train or guide prosecutors adequately.” We look forward to working with policymakers and exoneree advocates to meaningfully redress the systemic failures cited in the report and prevent future wrongful convictions.

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July 9, 2020 at 10:41AM

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 https://ift.tt/2myW3Gx

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 https://arstechnica.com

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 https://ift.tt/1jXmrxS

October 17, 2019 at 02:34PM