innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Controversial Lie Detector Test

By Zach Lowe

Published April 26 2006 For the Stamford Advocate

Norwalk police used a lie detector that many scientists say is inaccurate to draw confessions from at least two men in the 2004 murder of a cab driver.

The men, who have admitted taking part in the killing, are expected to testify against the accused shooter, Rick Felix, 18, of 57 Stuart Ave., Norwalk, during his murder trial this week. Felix is charged with shooting Ralph Moreau, 28, during a botched robbery on Ely Avenue in November 2004.

Norwalk's police department is one of about 1,400 police departments and government agencies in the country that own the controversial voice stress analyzer, according to the Web site for the National Institute for Truth Verification, manufacturer of the machine.

The $10,000 machine, a computer that measures tiny tremors in a person's voice said to be caused by stress associated with lying, is easier to use than a polygraph and pins suspects in a corner where confession is their only choice, supporters say.

Those supporters, including Norwalk Police Chief Harry Rilling, say the machine is valuable even if its results are not perfect.

But scientists say it is no better at determining whether a suspect is lying than someone guessing.Several states have banned police from using the machines, experts said.

Prosecutors are not allowed to present the machine's results as evidence in nearly all court cases, including Felix's, according to a judge's ruling yesterday.

For the whole story click here.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Drew Whitley Will Be Free

By: Bill Moushey
Director of the Innocence Institute at Point Park University

Eighteen years after Drew Whitley was imprisoned for life in the 1988 murder of a McDonald’s night manager, prosecutors are poised to ask a judge to free the former West Mifflin man after a second round of DNA tests indicated he was not responsible for the killing.

Yesterday, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. asked a judge to vacate Mr. Whitley’s 2nd Degree murder conviction and grant him a new trial.
But in an interview, Mr. Zappala said he will ask that judge to dismiss charges at a hearing Monday because new test results of hairs found in the nylon mask worn by the man who shot Noreen Malloy after a botched early-morning robbery show they did not belong to Mr. Whitley.

“We have results back today… and it’s not Whitley,” Mr. Zappala said. “That raises a couple of possibilities, but the strongest is that there’s reasonable doubt as to Whitley’s responsibility for the death of Ms. Malloy,” he said. He said Ms. Malloy’s family was told about the action yesterday.
It was the second set of DNA tests on evidence from the case that excluded Mr. Whitley from the crime, and the second time that post-conviction DNA tests have cleared someone in Allegheny County.
Mr. Whitley was convicted in 1989 on physical evidence and the word of two controversial witnesses who said he was the killer. Yesterday, Mr. Zappala called the case “another example of how science has contradicted the testimony of witnesses.” He said he has not received reports on three additional hairs from the mask, but has been assured from a State College testing firm that the results will also exclude Mr. Whitley.

Scott Coffey, Mr. Whitley’s post-trial lawyer, said the two had a 20-minute telephone conversation yesterday afternoon from the State Correctional Institution at Greensburg. He said another inmate told Mr. Whitley about a radio report prior to his phone call, but he knew few details.

“He’s flying high. He’s overwhelmed and in shock,” said Mr. Coffey about the first DNA exoneration he has been part of.

Mr. Coffey said Mr. Whitley was packing his belongings to be transported to the Allegheny County Jail today(WEDNESDAY) to await the 1:30 p.m. Monday hearing before Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Anthony Mariani, who is expected to grant the prosecutor’s motion for Mr. Whitley’s release.

Mr. Coffey was equally stunned by the turnaround. Just last week Mr. Zappala’s office filed a motion suggesting the prosecutor would oppose his request for a new trial based on the first round of DNA tests that excluded Mr. Whitley earlier this year.

For years, prosecutors had fought Mr. Whitley’s efforts to conduct DNA tests on more than 40 hairs that had been found in clothing worn by the man who beat and shot Ms. Malloy to death as she walked out of the McDonald’s restaurant near Kennywood Park when her shift ended around 3 a.m.

Last summer, after DNA testing exonerated convicted rapist Thomas Doswell of Homewood, Mr. Zappala said he would reconsider his interpretation of a 2003 state law that authorizes DNA tests for people convicted of major crimes.

The law says a defendant must persuade a judge DNA testing could prove actual innocence. Zappala said he previously felt that if a convict could not show that DNA testing would prove conclusive, his office would oppose it. Tests can cost up to $1,000 per specimen.
Mr. Zappala initially was reticent in agreeing to allow the evidence to be tested because two witnesses implicated the former West Mifflin man with a robbery record in the grisly killing.

Jerome Wilson, who was sitting outside the restaurant during the murder, initially told police he could not identify anyone, but eventually identified Mr. Whitley from voice and facial features he noticed through a nylon mask and hat, even though Mr. Whitley says he never met the man. The other was Gary Starr, a twice convicted murderer on death row who testified Mr. Whitley confessed the killing to him while both were in prison. After his testimony, prosecutors did not fight an appeal that reduced his sentence to life in prison.

In September, Common Pleas Judge Walter Little, who recently turned the case over to Judge Mariani because of ill health, breathed new life into Mr. Whitley’s appeals when he ordered DNA testing of the hairs found at the crime scene. After the hearing, Mr. Whitley told reporters what he has been saying all along: “I’m an innocent man.”

Post-Gazette staff writer Bill Moushey directs the Innocence Institute of Point Park University, a partnership with the Post-Gazette where students learn investigative reporting by researching and writing about allegations of wrongful convictions. The institute has investigated the Malloy-Whitley case for five years. Mr. Moushey can be reached at bmoushey@pointpark.edu or 412-765-3164.

Click here for more coverage of this story at Pittsburgh LiveLinks.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Tankleff Continues to Fight For Appeal

This article by Bruce Lambert was published in the New York Times on April 21, 2006:

The continuing effort to win an appeal for a Long Island man convicted of killing his parents has drawn new support that includes court filings by an international network of legal groups focused on freeing innocent prisoners, a national association of defense lawyers and an expert on false confessions.

The advocates said that an appeal for Martin H. Tankleff could lead to significant precedents on wrongful convictions, false confessions and other issues.

Critics have called the case a miscarriage of justice, but these groups are the first to enter the proceedings formally. Some groups spoke out on the case for the first time and some are taking the unusual step of seeking amicus curiae, or "friend of the court," status.

The Tankleff lawyers said the groups had volunteered their help. Their statements were attached to a motion, filed on Monday in the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, asking permission to appeal a Suffolk County judge's decision in March that upheld the convictions.

"We've taken the unusual step of writing a letter along with our motion because the facts of this case are so strong, and because the lower-court ruling that denied Martin Tankleff a new trial was so misguided and troubling," said Barry C. Scheck, a co-founder of the Innocence Project at the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, which has helped overturn more than 100 convictions.

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and its state branch wrote: "Like many bar associations and lawyers around the nation, we have carefully monitored the proceedings in Suffolk County Court." The group said the issues were so unusual "that they are of state and even national importance."

For the whole story, click here.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Line Up Controversy

This article was originally published in the Christian Science Monitor on April 24,2006:
By Amanda Paulson and Sara Miller Llana Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor CHICAGO AND BOSTON

A police lineup is often the moment of truth in a criminal investigation. It's also, say many experts, highly fallible.

Of the 175 convictions overturned by DNA evidence, 75 percent were convicted largely because of eyewitness testimony that turned out to be mistaken.

Those exonerations have energized efforts to reform the way police conduct lineups and get eyewitness identifications. A growing number of counties and states are adopting measures to improve accuracy and limit influences on witness memory.

Now, though, a first-of-its-kind study from Illinois is casting doubt on a reform called "sequential double-blind." That method shows witnesses photos of potential suspects one at a time, rather than all at once, and even the administrator doesn't know who the suspect is.

The study's results - which suggest the old method was both more accurate and more likely to produce an identification - are a boost to police departments that have resisted lineup changes.

Others say the study was flawed, and they worry that it will be used as an excuse to halt all eyewitness-identification reforms.

For now, supporters say more study - and more action - is needed, and they hope that a single study won't derail years of effort to improve what they say is a highly flawed system.

"My fear is that the debate over sequential blind will obscure everything, and you'll have police departments who are reluctant to change at all, or not adopt anything," says Barry Scheck, a professor at Yeshiva University's Cardozo School of Law in New York and co-director of the Innocence Project.

Eyewitness reliability is often a hot- button issue, especially in sexual assault cases. Just last week, it arose in the Duke University case in which a stripper has said she was raped by several lacrosse players. She picked two out of a photo lineup, but critics faulted the lineup for containing no fillers, only lacrosse players, likening it to a multiple choice test with no wrong answers.

The Illinois study focused only on the question whether to do sequential blind lineups, a switch that just a handful of jurisdictions have mandated so far. Commissions in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Virginia, and California have recommended that approach, and other jurisdictions are considering it.

Many are reviewing the Illinois study closely.
The study took place in three districts: Chicago, Evanston, and Joliet. During the course of a year, police compared the number of times a witness picked out the suspect using the traditional method - in which photos were shown simultaneously, and the administrator might know which is the suspect - with the new one.

Until now, research has shown that the sequential method sets a higher bar for accuracy: the witness compares the photo or person to his memory, rather than to the others in the lineup. Using administrators who are "blind" minimizes the risk that they will convey conscious or unconscious approval once the witness makes his pick - an action that could solidify a formerly hazy memory.

For the whole story, click here.

Tankleff Appeal

This article by Bruce Lambert originally ran in the New York Times on April 21, 2006:

The continuing effort to win an appeal for a Long Island man convicted of killing his parents has drawn new support that includes court filings by an international network of legal groups focused on freeing innocent prisoners, a national association of defense lawyers and an expert on false confessions.

The advocates said that an appeal for Martin H. Tankleff could lead to significant precedents on wrongful convictions, false confessions and other issues.

Critics have called the case a miscarriage of justice, but these groups are the first to enter the proceedings formally. Some groups spoke out on the case for the first time and some are taking the unusual step of seeking amicus curiae, or "friend of the court," status.

The Tankleff lawyers said the groups had volunteered their help. Their statements were attached to a motion, filed on Monday in the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, asking permission to appeal a Suffolk County judge's decision in March that upheld the convictions.

"We've taken the unusual step of writing a letter along with our motion because the facts of this case are so strong, and because the lower-court ruling that denied Martin Tankleff a new trial was so misguided and troubling," said Barry C. Scheck, a co-founder of the Innocence Project at the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, which has helped overturn more than 100 convictions.

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and its state branch wrote: "Like many bar associations and lawyers around the nation, we have carefully monitored the proceedings in Suffolk County Court." The group said the issues were so unusual "that they are of state and even national importance."

For the whole story, click here.