innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Friday, June 02, 2006

Former Allegheny County Chief Deputy Sentenced to Five Years for Corruption

This article by Paula Reed Ward ran in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette June 2, 2006.

Skosnik gets 5-year prison term

Says he's truly sorry for taking bribes as sheriff's top deputy

Friday, June 02, 2006By Paula Reed Ward, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Dennis Skosnik didn't have any family members in the courtroom as he stood before a judge to be sentenced.

Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette

Dennis Skosnik, the former chief deputy in the Allegheny County Sheriff's office, arrives for his federal court sentencing yesterday.He did not offer any testimony. There were no character witnesses and no letters on his behalf.

As the former chief deputy in the Allegheny County sheriff's office, Mr. Skosnik, of North Fayette, took bribes to help direct county business to his friends. He forced his underlings to donate to election campaigns. And he advised a witness how to lie during a grand jury investigation.

For all those things, Mr. Skosnik was sentenced yesterday to serve five years and three months in federal prison.

The 54-year-old spoke only briefly when given the chance by Senior U.S. District Judge Alan N. Bloch.

"I want to say I am truly sorry, your honor," he said, before deferring to his attorney, G. William Bills.

For the whole story, click here

Thursday, June 01, 2006

NJ Man Cleared After 17 Years

This Article Appeared on the Innocence Project website May 27, 2006.

Larry Peterson was exonerated on May 26, 2006, after Burlington County, New Jersey, prosecutors dismissed the murder and sexual assault indictment against him. Peterson had been convicted in March 1989 and was released after posting bail and pending a new trial in August 2005.

On the morning of August 24, 1987, the victim’s body was found on a dirt road in Burlington County, New Jersey, by a woman walking her dog. She had been manually strangled and sexually assaulted. Sticks were in her mouth and vagina and on the ground near her. She was partially nude and some of her clothing had been torn.

Both the victim’s best friend and a former boyfriend called the prosecutor’s office to report that Larry Peterson, who also lived in the area, had fresh “fingernail” scratch marks on his arms. Peterson went to the police voluntarily and denied committing the murder.Three men interviewed by police said that they were with Peterson at approximately the same time as the victim was found. The three men, after a number of interrogations, told police that Peterson had confessed to them while they were in the car together on the way to work. In this confession, Peterson allegedly told them that he ripped the victim’s clothing off, had oral and vaginal sex with her, choked her, and put sticks in her.Two jailhouse informants also testified at trial that they had heard Peterson admit that he had killed the victim.

A forensic scientist with the New Jersey State Police Laboratory System testified that her hair comparison analysis linked Peterson to the murder. She identified three foreign pubic hairs in the victim’s pubic combings that she said exhibited the same physical and microscopic characteristics as Peterson’s. She also linked a head hair fragment recovered from the bag that the victim was transported in to Peterson. Lastly, she examined a stick found 40 feet away from the victim and concluded that there were three of the victim’s pubic hairs, one of her head hairs, and three of Peterson’s pubic hairs on the stick. Because the victim had sex with two consensual partners on the night of the murder, the forensic scientist also got samples of the partners’ hairs. She concluded that neither of the consensual partners were the donors of the hairs.Another forensic scientist with the New Jersey State Police testified that there was seminal fluid on the victim’s jeans and sperm on her underwear. No seminal fluid or sperm was found in her rape kit. All tests on these items of evidence were inconclusive at the time of trial.

Peterson testified in his own defense at trial. Alibi witnesses supported his whereabouts during the time of the crime. Work records also showed that he did not work on the day that the victim was found – the day he supposedly confessed on his way to work.The jury convicted Peterson of felony murder and aggravated sexual assault in March 1989. He was sentenced to life plus twenty years in prison.

Peterson sought access to DNA testing in the early 1990s. In 1995, the Innocence Project began working on Peterson’s case. Peterson won a motion for DNA testing in 2003. The hairs, rape kit, clothing, and fingernail scrapings were sent to the Serological Research Institute (SERI), where STR and mitochondrial DNA tests were performed. In 2005, SERI reported the results of testing: Peterson was excluded as a contributor of any and all of the biological evidence.The pubic hairs collected from the victim’s pubic combings and stick from the crime scene all matched the victim. Although the New Jersey State Police Laboratory had reported that there was no semen in the victim’s rape kit, SERI identified sperm on her oral, vaginal, and anal swabs. Two different male profiles were found. One of the males was one of the victim’s consensual partners, and his profile was found on her underwear, jeans, and rape kit. The other unknown male was found on all of the swabs in her rape kit.

Significantly, this unknown male profile was not found on the victim’s underwear or jeans, indicating that she did not put these items of clothing back on before she was killed, consistent with the fact that she was found partially nude. Further, the victim’s fingernail scrapings were subjected to testing and SERI found the profile of the same unknown male that deposited the sperm found in the victim’s mouth, vagina, and anus.

Based on this evidence, Peterson’s conviction was vacated in July 2005. Despite evidence demonstrating that none of the hairs attributed to Peterson belonged to him and the presence of an unknown male’s sperm on the victim’s oral, vaginal, and anal swabs, the prosecution indicated that they would re-try Peterson. Peterson was released in August 2005 after borrowing thousands of dollars to post bail.

On May 26, 2006, the prosecution decided to drop all charges against Peterson and his conviction was vacated.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

A Chilling Effect

This article about new legal challenges to newsgathering originally ran in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on May 31,2006:

By Maeve Reston, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
WASHINGTON -- The eight-year legal dispute between U.S. Reps. John Boehner and James A. McDermott has the elements and plot twists of the most intriguing kinds of Capitol Hill dramas, and it still has no final episode.

First, there was the over-the-phone strategy session among top House Republicans just before their leader began tumbling from power -- a call illegally intercepted and taped by a Florida couple on their police scanner.

Then, the couple's secret delivery of the tape to Mr. McDermott of Washington state, the ethics committee's top Democrat, who leaked it to the press, got caught and was later slapped with a lawsuit by Mr. Boehner of Ohio, now the House Republican leader, whose cell-phone conversation was the one intercepted.

As the case has spiraled up and down in the courts -- with a panel of U.S. appeals court judges giving Mr. Boehner the most recent victory in March -- it has raised serious concerns for news organizations about whether an eventual win by the majority leader could endanger both sources who hand over information they've obtained illegally and the reporters who disclose it.
Mr. McDermott's supporters note that some of history's biggest scoops -- the Pentagon Papers, the Watergate and Clinton-Lewinsky scandals -- have come from sources who may have broken rules to make information public. For that reason, 18 major news organizations and journalism groups, including the New York Times, Dow Jones & Co., ABC, NBC and CBS, have backed Mr. McDermott.

They argue there was legitimate public interest in the illegally taped conversation, because then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., was discussing how to contain the political fallout from his admission that he had broken House rules, a violation of an agreement he had made with the House ethics panel, which had asked Mr. Gingrich not to orchestrate his own defense.

In a friend-of-the-court brief, the news groups argued to the appeals court last year that a Boehner win could "jeopardize and chill traditional newsgathering."

For the whole story, click here.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Death of Don Bolles

This series of articles about the murder of investigative reporter Don Bolles originally ran in the Arizona Republic

On June 2, 1976, a bomb exploded beneath Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles’ car. Eleven days later, he died. Today, there are still those who believe Bolles’ slaying is something of a mystery. Prosecutors say he was killed because of his stories attacking powerful Valley businessman Kemper Marley. Others think he died because of what he wrote about organized crime. Still others believe he was done in by a combination of the two. The truth is buried in the minds, or in the graves, of those who were involved.

For the series of articles, click here.