innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Prosecutor called an "embarrassment"

The Kirkwood family

The president of Lawrence County's bar association has filed an ethical complaint against a prosecutor there, accusing her of committing fraud in the Justin Kirkwood case. Jonathan Solomon called Assistant District Attorney Birgitta Tolvanen's actions in the case "an embarrassment to the legal profession"

Kirkwood was convicted of robbing a New Castle craft store of $170, despite several alibi witnesses. One of those witnesses was the owner of a local car dealership, who said he was talking with Kirkwood on the phone at the same time the crime was being committed across town. During cross-examination, Tolvanen waved phone records in the witness' face and asked: "Would you be surprised, sir, that it shows ... no record of a telephone call being made to the Kirkwood residence on that day?"

"I would be very surprised, because ... I did make the phone call," he responded.

The jury apparently didn't believe him, because Kirkwood was sentenced to 3 1/2 to 7 years in prison. But the Innocence Institute found out the phone records show no local calls at all and uncovered other inconsistencies in the case that suggest Kirkwood was wrongfully convicted. Our story on the case in the Post-Gazette, which was also picked up by the New Castle paper, apparently prompted the complaint.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Supreme Court backs videotaping child witnesses

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that the Supreme Court will uphold a constitutional amendment that allows children who are witnesses or victims in violent crimes to testify through videotape or closed circuit television.

Three defense attorneys have challenged the amendment stating that if witnesses are not forced to be "face-to-face" with the accuser it may result in more wrongful convictions.