innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Pa. Supreme Court opens lawyer disciplinary hearings to public

Thursday, November 03, 2005
By Paula Reed Ward, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

After more than 32 years of secret proceedings to discipline lawyers who have acted inappropriately, the state Supreme Court has opened those hearings to the public.
The new rules go into effect Nov. 12 and apply to all charges filed after that.
In Pennsylvania, about 5,000 complaints are filed against attorneys each year. Of those, only about 200 result in disciplinary action. Most of the rest are frivolous, said Marvin Rudnitsky, chair of the state Supreme Court Disciplinary Board.
"Just because formal charges have been filed doesn't mean the person's guilty, just that there's a reasonable basis for the charges," he said.
Under the new process, there will be three levels of review before a public hearing would occur, to protect attorneys from unfounded charges, Mr. Rudnitsky said.
A complaint will first be investigated by disciplinary counsel, then by the chief disciplinary counsel, and then reviewed by one of the disciplinary board's hearing committee members.
At that point, a public hearing would be held before a three-person panel, made up of attorneys. The panel then would make a recommendation to the 16-member disciplinary board. The board, in turn, deliberates and makes its recommendation to the state Supreme Court.
"When we have a real danger to the public, a lawyer who is crooked and unethical, the public is exposed to that person during that [review] process, which could take up to two years," Mr. Rudnitsky said.
Before the changes were adopted last month, Pennsylvania was one of only about a half-dozen states, including New York, whose disciplinary process was closed to the public until a final ruling by the state Supreme Court regarding punishment for an offending lawyer.
The issue has been debated for years. In 1992, the American Bar Association released a report that encouraged states to be more open in the disciplinary process. In Pennsylvania, the issue was studied and reviewed for two years before the changes were adopted, Mr. Rudnitsky said.
"I felt that the public would appreciate having more access to the process" as it does for all other licensed professions in Pennsylvania, Mr. Rudnitsky said.
The public can use the board's Web site, to search a database that lists attorneys who have been disciplined.
There are about 57,000 licensed lawyers in Pennsylvania.
"I think the public perception was that it was, perhaps, a good old boys' club," said Mr. Rudnitsky. "I felt that this needed to be changed."
Paul Killion, chief disciplinary counsel for the board, said he received a lot of complaints that the board was "protecting their own." In some cases of minor infractions, like an attorney who neglects a client, Mr. Killion said reprimands still will be made in private.
In an average year, Mr. Killion said, he typically imposes at least 100 informal admonitions and the disciplinary board issues about 30 private reprimands. Last year, he said, there were 112 cases of formal discipline. Those can result in punishment ranging from a short suspension to disbarment.
(Paula Reed Ward can be reached at pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1601.)

Eyewitness I.D. Reform

By Bill Moushey
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A series of eyewitness reforms which call for police officers in Allegheny County to use nationally accepted standards to prevent false eyewitness identifications in criminal investigations has been recommended to every law enforcement agency in the county by a prominent police chief's group.

The voluntary reform policy was circulated by the executive board of the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association after four months of study. It aims to start bringing eyewitness identification techniques in this county in line with modern science of memory issues that were the basis of eyewitness reform recommendations issued six years ago by the U.S. Department of Justice. The issues were detailed last May in the Post-Gazette series “Sight Unseen.”

The wide-ranging policy circulated in the past few weeks to approximately 120 police agencies in the county suggests:
· Police should use a “double-blind” photo identification procedure where someone other than the investigator – who does not know who the suspect is -- constructs photo arrays with non-suspects as fillers to reduce suggestiveness;
· Lawmen should instruct witnesses that the perpetrator may or may not be in the array, and witnesses should be presented photos one-at-a-time to prevent comparisons with other suspects;
· Eyewitnesses should be recorded on tape immediately after an identification procedure to establish their degree of confidence, and
· Police should avoid multiple photo identification procedures where the same witness views the same suspect more than once.

A Clear Need

Chief Gary W. Anderson of McCandless, president of the chief’s association, said the group’s 19 member board decided to create the voluntary guidelines after it became clear few Allegheny County departments have policies on eyewitness identifications.

The board made the specific guidelines available to the members so “they can make their own individual choices,” said Chief Anderson, who is implementing all of them in McCandless without problems.

Tim Logue, secretary of the chief’s group who is a retired Green Tree Borough police chief now working with the Allegheny County District Attorney’s investigations unit, said he has had a positive response from police chiefs who examined the voluntary proposal during a vetting process that began in August.

“They have really agreed that is something that needs to be addressed,” Mr. Logue said.

He said the Western Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association, which includes agencies from Allegheny and 21 surrounding counties, will consider the policy reforms at a meeting this month.

“Our goal as police administrators is to ensure that no one who is innocent is wrongfully convicted. It that happens through this kind of policy, I think we have an obligation to do it,” Mr. Logue said.

The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police is examining the draft proposal as part of its ongoing review of eyewitness identification practices.

Stephen A. Zappala Jr., Allegheny County District Attorney, said the series published by the Post-Gazette in May caused him to ask the police chiefs group to examine eyewitness identification reforms. The series challenged eyewitness identifications in numerous cases in this region – a New Castle man has been released from prison as a result of it -- and showed few departments have eyewitness identification procedures that meet national standards.

The three-part series was authored by students of the Innocence Institute of Point Park University, a partnership between the school’s Department of Journalism and Mass Communication and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette where students learn investigative reporting by probing into real-world allegations of injustice.

Mr. Zappala said the case of Thomas Doswell, who was positively identified by an eyewitness in 1986 as an East End rapist and incarcerated for almost 19 years until a DNA test proved his innocence last August, put an exclamation point on his desire to push eyewitness policy reforms.

“It makes a lot of sense. Why not have the best practices in place because we are all trying to get the same results, which is a just result,” Mr. Zappala said of the first eyewitness identification policy reforms in this region.

Eyewitness Reforms

Along with the double blind photo identification process where an administrator who does not know who the suspect is presents the photos to reduce suggestiveness, the reform policy asks police to do sequential photo arrays including one suspect at a time so witnesses don’t compare pictures; use suspect photos that resemble what they looked like on the day of the crime; use fillers that reasonably resemble witness descriptions; lead the process with a filler, and ensure no information about previous arrests is visible to the witness.

Witnesses should be separated, no one should be present who knows the identity of the suspect, the administrator should not offer commentary, and specific instructions that tell witnesses the suspect may or may not be present should be given.

They also say the photos should be presented one at a time.

After the photo identification, police are instructed to preserve them in their original condition and immediately record the confidence of the witness, something that often doesn’t happen.

It suggests many of the same policy reforms when police construct live lineups.

The voluntary policy also suggests that while show-up identifications -- where a nabbed suspect is presented to an eyewitness shortly after an incident -- are “inherently more suggestive,” officers should document a description before the show-up.

They also should try to avoid letting the witness see the suspect in handcuffs or in the back of a police car and the officers should not suggest anything to the witness about the detained person.

If there are multiple witnesses, they should confront the suspect one at a time to prevent them from teaming up and police should promptly record the witness statements in show-up identifications.

Chief Anderson said while departments who implement the “double-blind” process of a disinterested person constructing a photo array or live line-up could incur additional labor costs through overtime and court costs, most of the suggested policy reforms are simple changes of process that cost nothing.

Following a National Trend

Across the country, police officials and prosecutors have been re-evaluating eyewitness identification procedures because of a growing body of cases in which eyewitnesses have falsely identified and helped convict innocent people, while letting the guilty go free.

Mistaken eyewitness identification helped convict nearly 80 percent of the 163 people like Doswell who were exonerated through DNA testing by the New York-based Innocence Project at the Cardozo Law School of Yeshiva University. Other studies also have shown false eyewitness identifications have led to wrongful convictions.

In 2001, New Jersey became the first state to adopt eyewitness reforms. They have been followed in Virginia, the cities of Boston, Chicago and Minneapolis, among other places.

Prior to the Allegheny County police chief’s policy statement, the Post-Gazette/Innocence Institute series reported most police chiefs in Western Pennsylvania had no such policies, instead relying on long used processes different from the new processes that have led to numerous costly court challenges.

“Having a successful investigation come to fruition because of good eyewitness testimony and eyewitness identification is simply a matter of doing the right thing,” Chief Anderson said, suggesting the reforms constitute good police work that will help ensure officers nab the right culprits in crime.

“That’s what the object is,” he said.

Post-Gazette Staff Writer Bill Moushey is director of the Innocence Institute of Point Park University who can be reached at 412-756-3164 or Bmoushey@pointpark.edu.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Police question ex-cellmates of freed death row inmate about 1986 Paris killings

Associated Press
CHICAGO - Authorities have been questioning former cellmates of a 54-year-old freed death row inmate as part of their reinvestigation into the 1986 killings of two people in east-central Illinois, prosecutors said.
Illinois State Police have been asking the inmates whether Gordon "Randy" Steidl or his one-time co-defendant Herb Whitlock ever admitted to any involvement in the deaths of newlyweds Dyke and Karen Rhoads of Paris.
Steidl was the 18th person since Illinois reinstated the death penalty in 1977 to be freed because of a wrongful conviction after serving time on Illinois' death row. A federal judge ruled in June 2003 that the jury that convicted him of the murders did not hear all the evidence.
Steidl - who spent 17 years in prison, including a dozen on death row - has requested a pardon based on innocence, but prosecutors have said he is still a suspect in the couple's deaths.
During a hearing before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board on Oct. 21, Steidl referred to a letter dated Sept. 10 from an inmate who wrote that detectives had questioned him and other former cellmates about Steidl and Whitlock.
Whitlock - who is serving a life prison sentence for the murder of Karen Rhoads - is awaiting an Edgar County judge's decision on whether he will reconsider his ruling to deny Whitlock's request for a new trial.
Karen Daniel, one of Steidl's attorneys and a lawyer with Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions, said the attempt to find a jailhouse informant is a "very desperate investigative tactic."
But David Rands, a special prosecutor with the Illinois Appellate Prosecutor's Office, said the questioning of former cellmates is a reasonable investigative method and is part of a "very detailed and painstaking" investigation.
"I'm well aware of the shortcomings of (jailhouse snitch) testimony," Rands said. "We are leaving no stone unturned."
State Police spokesman Lt. Lincoln Hampton said his agency does not comment on ongoing investigations.
The Appellate Prosecutor's Office has said it needs two to three months more months to determine whether it wants to retry Steidl.

Bill calls for benefits for those wrongly imprisoned

Bill calls for benefits for those wrongly imprisoned

Tuesday, November 01, 2005By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau

HARRISBURG -- Pittsburgher Thomas Doswell, who was wrongly imprisoned for nearly 20 years for a crime he didn't commit, came to the Capitol yesterday to urge passage of a law to provide state financial compensation to people wrongly sent to jail.
Mr. Doswell, 46, of Homewood, stood beside state Sens. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, and Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, who have introduced legislation that would provide compensation for innocent people after they are released from prison and expunge the criminal convictions that remain on their records.
The Senate bill, introduced last month, parallels a bill introduced in the House in May by Rep. Mike McGeehan, D-Philadelphia, who said 22 other states already have approved such compensation legislation and Pennsylvania should be the 23rd.
Mr. Doswell said he was wrongly convicted for a March 1986 rape that he didn't commit and was recently exonerated by DNA testing, which didn't exist when the incident occurred. He was convicted erroneously, based on mistaken witness testimony.
Mr. Doswell spoke movingly of not being able to attend his father's funeral because he was in prison, of not being present as his mother grew older and of not being with his son, who was 3 when Mr. Doswell was imprisoned, as he grew up.
Mr. Doswell was 26 when the rape occurred and spent nearly 20 years in state prison before being released Aug. 1.
"I was sentenced to 13 to 26 years," he told a news conference. "It was very difficult for me. I was told I would die in prison."
He said he appeared before a parole board five times and was told he could be released if he confessed to the crime, but he wouldn't because it wasn't the truth.
"I stood on the truth because I believed the truth would one day set me free," Mr. Doswell said, quoting the words of Christ and saying he is a Christian.
He said that when he finally was released from jail, he had no money and "I didn't even get bus fare. No one even said, 'We're sorry for what happened to you, Tommy.' "
Currently, he said, "I don't have a job, a car or health insurance.
"There are many Tommy Doswells still in prison. They need help in order to survive."
His lawyer, Stephen Saloom of the Innocence Project, said that so far, 163 prisoners have been exonerated in the United States using DNA tests, which he said are scientific and much more reliable than witness accounts.
But it's hard for Mr. Doswell to find a job because he still has a criminal record, which needs to be erased so he can get on with his life, Mr. Saloom said.
"When you're released from prison after spending years there, you don't even have money to pay the electric bill, let alone to hire an attorney to expunge your record," added Mr. McGeehan.
Former state Attorney General Ernie Preate was also at the news conference, and said it's important for someone such as Mr. Doswell to have his false imprisonment removed from his record.
"Tommy still carries his criminal history. That has to be changed. When he goes for a job, that will come up," Mr. Preate said.
Mr. McGeehan's bill has two formulas for determining compensation for freed prisoners. The person would get whichever amount is greater.
The first method is that for every day a prisoner was incarcerated unjustly, he or she would be paid the per diem of a General Assembly member, which recently rose from $128 a day to $141 a day.
The other formula equates to the actual wage loss of a person who was wrongly incarcerated. If that person had been earning $50,000 a year and was wrongly jailed for 10 years, he or she would received $500,000 from the state.
In addition, the ex-inmate would get $50,000 for each year he or she had spent on death row.
But approval of the compensation bill is by no means assured. Mr. Ferlo said some of his Senate colleagues "just shrugged their shoulders" when asked to support it. Some legislators fear they could look "soft on crime" if they vote for such a bill to give money to freed prisoners.
Mr. Ferlo appealed to "the religious community" to support the compensation bill for wrongly convicted prisoners.
Mr. McGeehan's bill has been stuck in the House Judiciary Committee for months, but he said leaders there recently agreed "to look at it."

Monday, October 31, 2005

Rapist's file now includes a confessionRULING:

Comments to parole board conflict with innocence claims.

By TATABOLINE BRANT

Anchorage Daily News(Published: October 30, 2005)

A confession that convicted rapist William Osborne made to his parole board last year may come back to haunt him.
Osborne, 33, for years has battled for new DNA tests that he says, given new technology, will help clear him. He maintains he is innocent of the crime a jury concluded he committed: the brutal beating and rape of a prostitute in Anchorage one winter night in 1993.
Osborne's comments to his parole board say otherwise, and the state last month argued that they should be added to Osborne's official court record, so that the judges trying to decide whether to allow new tests can consider them.
To the state's delight, Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason ruled this month to add Osborne's parole board comments -- usually not public records -- to the court file.
"I'm very gratified that she put an end to this nonsense -- this charade that you've got a man who's consistently maintained his innocence," prosecutor Jay Fayette said Friday.
"It doesn't mean anything" except more legal wrangling, said Osborne's attorney, Randall Cavanaugh. "We'll just make it all messy, that's all it means."
More than 160 wrongly convicted people have been exonerated nationwide in recent years through post-conviction DNA testing, according the New York-based Innocence Project, a nonprofit that is supporting Osborne's push for new tests.
A study of 111 of the exonerations shows that more than a quarter involved false confessions or admissions of guilt, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project.
Cavanaugh said Osborne's confession before the parole board was a lie too -- a desperate measure by a man who has been locked away for more than a decade for something he has maintained since his arrest he didn't do. Osborne saw a chance at freedom and tried to take it by telling the board what it wanted to hear, Cavanaugh said.
According to court records, Osborne told the parole board that his low self-esteem led him to help another man beat and rape the woman near Earthquake Park.
In his application for parole, Osborne wrote that he and his buddy, who was also convicted of rape and assault, spotted the prostitute after leaving the Space Station. "She got in the car with us, and we all went out to Earthquake Park," the application says. "Once there I pulled out a gun and ordered (her) to take off her clothes. After she did, me and my co-defendant took turns having sex with her. After we were done I ordered (her) to get out of the car. She refused to do so and kept refusing."
"... My co-defendant became enraged when he discover that (she) had defecated in his car and began to assault her with a stick. I also assaulted (her) by kicking and punching her."
Osborne later told the board in an oral interview that the woman was afraid because she thought "we were going to get her out of the car and kill her ... I can understand her reason," according to court records.
Osborne's parole was denied.
How much weight a judge will put on the parole board comments is unknown. Fayette said lawyers on both sides will have to argue it for what it's worth.
Cavanaugh said he doesn't think it's worth much because of the circumstances under which it was given.
"There seems to be a policy that if you don't confess, you don't get paroled in these situations," he said.
Fayette said he thinks otherwise. The state appeals court has set forth post-conviction DNA testing criteria, and Judge Gleason has to determine whether Osborne meets them before giving the case back to the higher court for final consideration. Those criteria are partly based on cases Outside where someone had "consistently maintained" their innocence, Fayette said.
Osborne isn't one of those guys, Fayette argues -- that's a main reason the state pushed for the parole board confession to be added to the official record in the first place.
"It would be a fraud on the court, on the crime victim, on the public, to have the judges mistakenly assume that Osborne has always maintained his innocence, because he hasn't," Fayette said.
And, he added, the confession just further proves "this guy is guilty." The victim and his co-defendant identified him, a jury convicted him, "plus now -- he's said he did it!" he said.
But Cavanaugh says there were several problems with the victim's identification -- one of the leading causes for wrongful convictions -- and that the co-defendant could have lied. What's left is the DNA evidence: hair and semen found at the crime scene.
Tests done in 1993 showed that the semen matched about 16 percent of the black population, a group that included Osborne. He asked for more advanced testing, but his attorney at the time refused, strategizing that the inconclusive results were in his favor because they showed the semen could have come from any number of people.
Far more advanced DNA tests are available now.
"Let's just get the condom and hair tested," Cavanaugh said. "That's what needs to be done. If they are so sure they have the right guy, just let us spend our money to get it tested."