innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Friday, February 24, 2006

Line-up Process Questioned

The Innocence Institute has written extensively about false eye-witness identification procedures.

In this article by Andrea Wiegl that originally ran in The News & Observer, the author reports that North Carolina District Attorney's are questioning established practices in regard to eyewitness identification procedures:

When eyewitnesses pick a crime suspect out of a photo lineup, the police are supposed to ask them how confident they are that they've made the right choice.

Now some prosecutors say they don't want officers to do that.
The N.C. Criminal Justice Education and Training Standards Commission is requiring that officers learn to ask the so-called confidence question. It's meant to help prevent wrongful convictions.

But opponents say the question injects reasonable doubt into investigations that defense lawyers can exploit later. The executive committee of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys came out against the practice this month.

For the whole story, click here.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Dallas Crime Lab Scandal

This article by Bruce Nichols was orignally published in the Dallas Morning News :
A series of investigations of the Houston police crime lab has uncovered dozens of faulty tests, but the findings have freed just two wrongly convicted men in three years.

Some say the legal system – including defense lawyers – has been slow to respond, and legislators and inmate advocates are looking for ways to make sure innocent people have not been sent to prison or, worse, the death chamber.

"There needs to be some mechanism to giving those individuals the proper legal representation they deserve," said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, board chairman for the New York-based Innocence Project and a member of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

Prosecutors say few convictions have been overturned because most of the errors were not major factors in convictions.

But critics aren't so sure. Preliminary findings last month showed 40 percent of DNA cases examined and 22.5 percent of blood-test cases scrutinized between 1987 and 2002 had major errors.

And the inquiry keeps growing. Michael Bromwich, an independent investigator hired by the city in 2005, is extending his inquiry seven years further back, to 1980, casting doubt on hundreds more cases.

The examination is unfolding even as other cases around the state and the country have been overturned for similar problems.

Triggered by a 2002 KHOU-TV investigation that uncovered flaws in Houston Police Department DNA testing, the investigation has gone through several stages – prosecutors and police combed through more than 400 DNA cases; two grand juries studied and criticized the police lab; and Mr. Bromwich sampled 2,700 cases of various types for examination.

The findings have been shocking.

According to Mr. Bromwich's reports, poorly trained lab workers faked or misinterpreted tests, withheld exculpatory findings and gave false testimony in court.

For the whole story, click here.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

High Court Upholds Alito

This article is republished in its entirety from the Associated Press:
WASHINGTON -- Pennsylvania lost a Supreme Court appeal that sought to put a convicted killer back on death row.
The state wanted justices to overturn a ruling by the court's new member, Samuel Alito.

Chief Justice Alito had handled Antuan Bronshtein's case when he was still on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, writing a ruling last year that gave the Russian immigrant a chance to spare his life.

Justice Alito was elevated from the appeals court to the high court late last month, replacing Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. He did not participate in the decision to reject Pennsylvania's appeal.

Mr. Bronshtein, who emigrated to the United States from Russia as a child, was convicted in the 1991 deaths of two Philadelphia-area jewelers. He claimed the victims were slain by a member of the Russian mafia known as Mr. X. He received the death sentence for one of the murders, that of store owner Alexander Gutmann, who was shot in the face and robbed of $60,000 worth of jewelry.

At issue in the case was a missed deadline.

Bruce Castor Jr., the Montgomery County district attorney, said that for the past decade the state has had a one-year deadline for appeals that "has been strictly applied, exactly as written, in both capital and non-capital cases."

Alito, writing for a three-judge panel of the 3rd Circuit, said that the deadline was not consistently enforced in death penalty cases. The decision upheld Bronshtein's conviction but said he was entitled to a new sentencing hearing.

A pro-death penalty group, the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said in a brief that Justice Alito's opinion was disturbing because of "its cavalier treatment of the Pennsylvania statute."

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Cycle of Jail Violence

This article was orignally published in the LA Times, written by Megan Garvey and Sharon Bernstein, Times Staff Writers

The racially charged melees that have rocked Los Angeles County jails over the last two weeks are the latest flare-ups in a long-troubled system where problems are well-known but fixes rare.
The outbreaks, which left two inmates dead and more than 100 injured, have been remarkably similar to violence that hit county jails in 2000, 1996, 1985 and 1971: Clashes between black and Latino inmates and too few cells for the most dangerous inmates, forcing officials to place them in lower-security dormitories.
In the aftermath of each disturbance, the Board of Supervisors called on the sheriff to fix the problem and the sheriff called on the Board of Supervisors to give him more money.
Along the way, sheriff's officials and outside experts have made numerous proposals to lessen racial tensions and remove the highest security-risk inmates from group settings.Most of the efforts have fallen by the wayside, victims of budget cuts and overcrowding — revisited only when the latest round of fights threatens the safety of guards and leave inmates dead or injured.
For the whole story click here.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Wrongful Convictions In PA

This AP Wire Story is republished from the Harrisburg Times:

MARK SCOLFORO
Associated Press
HARRISBURG, Pa. -
Post-conviction DNA testing has demonstrated conclusively that innocent people do get convicted - even of the most serious offenses.

In Pennsylvania, which adopted DNA testing rules in 2002, at least eight "guilty" people have been cleared with the help of DNA testing, according to the Innocence Project, and no one knows how many others remain incarcerated.
Some state lawmakers think a close examination of the string of DNA exonerations could prevent more people from being wrongfully convicted.

The idea behind the Innocence Commission Act, introduced last month by Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, is to have a panel study those cases and suggest changes to state laws, court procedures or police practices that might cut the error rate.

"We've spent a lot of time in the Legislature, I personally have, adopting some very tough laws in Pennsylvania in regard to violent offenders and sexual offenders and all that. And they should be in jail," said Greenleaf, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "But if we're going to have tough sentences, then we also have to make sure we're not going to convict innocent people."

His proposal would establish a commission with about 30 members drawn from the state's prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, corrections officials, police, victim advocates and others.

They would not be starting from scratch. Researchers say they have already identified some patterns, most notably that flawed eyewitness identification often plays a role. Other factors include false confessions, police or prosecutorial misconduct, faulty forensics, reliance on bad informants and poor legal representation.

There are also plenty of ideas about how to fix the system. The state could require police interrogations to be taped, improve independent oversight of crime labs or further streamline access to post-conviction DNA testing. State courts could let experts testify about how eyewitnesses can be wrong.

"It's one thing to say we have an imperfect system," said Duquesne University Law School professor John T. Rago. "But it's another thing to countenance it."

The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association supports using improvements in technology to reduce errors, but hasn't taken a formal position on the bill, said executive director Mary-Jo Mullen.

"Any effort to improve the system to ensure that innocent people remain innocent is a good thing. District attorneys are out to seek justice - to convict the guilty, not the innocent," she said.

Lock Haven City Police Department Chief Skip Hocker said no "clear thinking, professional, caring police chief" would dispute the need for safeguards to prevent the innocent from being convicted.

But Hocker, president of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association, is not necessarily ready to embrace mandatory recording of interrogations or changes to how witness lineups are conducted.

"I think the concept is a good one to study. Beyond that, the devil is in the details in how all this shakes out, and what will be acceptable and will not be acceptable to law enforcement," he said.

The 750-member Pennsylvania Association of Criminal
Defense Lawyers, on the other hand, has reacted enthusiastically and given its endorsement.
"It's the best thing that's happened in Pennsylvania in my lifetime," said Easton lawyer Gary Neil Asteak, the association's president. "We spend a lot of time talking about the guilty. How about the innocent who have to deal with the criminal justice system?"

Rago, the Duquesne law professor, said much is at stake.

"If we lose faith in the ability of our criminal justice system, and all of the constitutional safeguards and all of the evidentiary safeguards to separate those who are guilty from those who are not, we will lose touch with one of the core principles of our republic," he said.

Jail Inmates Were Stripped to Deter Riots

Below is a story that was originally published in the L.A. Times By Megan Garvey and Stuart Pfeifer:

More than 100 inmates at a Los Angeles County jail were ordered to strip naked, had their mattresses taken away and were left with only blankets to cover themselves for a day as Los Angeles Sheriff's Department officials tried to quell racially charged violence that has plagued the jail system for nearly two weeks.

The tactics — defended Friday by jail officials as necessary to stop the fighting — were immediately criticized as dehumanizing and highly inappropriate by civil rights activists and the Sheriff's Department's independent overseer.


"I have no problem taking privileges away…. It comes to a different level of basic human rights if you take away clothing and dignity," said Michael Gennaco, chief of Sheriff Lee Baca's office of independent review.

"I don't know if it is consistent with the sheriff's core values."Baca said Friday that he was informed of the tactics after the order was given and supported the move, as long as the measures were short-lived. He said keeping inmates naked was at the "outer edge of our core values" but was done to save lives.

Scrutiny of the inmates' treatment comes as Gennaco is also examining why the bunk beds in dorms at Pitchess Detention Center where the rioting began Feb. 4 were not permanently fastened to a floor or wall.

State guidelines in effect since 1986 call for beds in areas holding maximum-security-risk inmates to be immovable, in part so inmates cannot use them as weapons.Investigators believe attackers used a steel bunk bed to beat inmate Wayne Tiznor, 45, to death during rioting Feb. 4 at the North County Correctional Facility in Castaic.

About 2,000 inmates threw bunk beds off balconies and beat and kicked one another in a disturbance that took deputies four hours to end.In light of the slaying, sheriff's officials said

Friday they may begin fastening more than 1,600 double and triple bunk beds to the floor or walls in dorms holding maximum-security inmates. Recent riots and fights in the jails have left two men dead and more than 100 injured, including four injuries Friday after 40 inmates scuffled at the Pitchess' North facility, a disturbance broken up by deputies using tear gas.

Sammy L. Jones, chief of the custody division, said Friday that it was his decision to force inmates at that jail to spend much of Feb. 9 naked and without their mattresses. The punishment was an attempt to calm inmates who had repeatedly attacked each other, even after privileges such as access to mail, television and phones were taken away, Jones said.

He said the measures were taken in three dorms, each housing between 45 and 60 inmates. The strategy worked, he said. There was no new violence in those dorms and after one day the inmates were given clothing, Jones said.While naked, inmates had no place to hide weapons such as homemade knives and could not use clothing to pull another inmate down, he said.

"I'm dealing with lives," Jones said. "I'm sure that if an inmate goes in there and comes out with his life and comes home healthy, his family is happy."

Jones, who said he has spent the last two weeks talking to inmates and directing efforts to suppress fighting, said: "I take it personally if I lose somebody in the jail system. It hurts."

For the whole story, click here.