innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Friday, July 14, 2006

2006 Salute to Excellence Awards

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette piece "He's Free, Forgiving," by Post-Gazette staff writers Bill Moushey and Torsten Ove was announced Friday, July 14, 2006 as a finalist for 2006 Salute to Excellence Awards.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Judge Erases Rape Conviction

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Exonerated after 18 years behind bars for a rape he did not commit, James Calvin Tillman left Hartford Superior Court on Tuesday with a clean slate and no clear sense of his future."It's all up to Jesus now," said Tillman, 44, who spent much of his time in prison singing in the choir and reading the Bible.

While Tillman rebuilds his interrupted life, some Connecticut officials expect the Hartford man's case to be the impetus for change.Several lawmakers want the General Assembly to pass a law outlining when and how to compensate the wrongly convicted.

Such laws are in place in 21 other states.State Sen. Andrew McDonald, co-chairman of the Legislature's judiciary committee, said Tuesday that his committee will draft a bill after reviewing other states' policies and holding public hearings."Fortunately, we don't have much experience with this in Connecticut," he said.

"I think we'll have some good legislation to advance in the next session."Connecticut Chief Public Defender Gerard Smyth also plans to cite Tillman's case when he asks state leaders to fund the Connecticut Innocence Project in his next budget.Tillman was the first person exonerated by DNA testing through the Connecticut program, which has two attorneys who research cases while also juggling their public defender jobs.

They currently are reviewing about 120 other potential wrongful convictions, attorney Karen Goodrow said Tuesday.Funding the Connecticut Innocence Project would allow the public defender's office to assign attorneys to work specifically on more cases like Tillman's, Smyth said.

"If there's even one more person in there, we need to find that out," he said.Tillman was 26 and working at a car wash when he was arrested in 1988 and charged with kidnapping, raping and beating a woman in downtown Hartford.She picked Tillman's picture from a series of photos and identified him again at his trial. Friends contradicted his alibi, and tests presented during the 1989 trial showed Tillman's DNA and that of the attacker shared a particular trait.

Scientists and investigators now know that trait is shared by one of every five people, hardly as rare as it seemed in the 1980s when DNA technology was still in its early stages.Recent testing determined that evidence on the woman's nylon pantyhose and dress did not match Tillman's DNA.

He was released from prison in June while final tests were conducted. Hartford Superior Court Judge Thomas Miano dismissed all charges against him Tuesday.The judge, prosecutor and defense attorney agreed there was no willful misconduct during the trial."That fact does not make the pain of this situation any less," said Miano, adding that Tillman's case emphasizes how unreliable witness identifications can be.

Assistant State's Attorney Edward Narus said Tuesday in court that the victim has been updated on the progress of the case. Original evidence kept from the rape will be sent back to the Hartford Police Department, which will again investigate.

Tillman maintained his innocence and rejected a plea bargain that would have given him eight years in prison.His younger brother died of a heart condition while he was in prison, and he walks with a cane because he broke his leg and it never healed properly.Yet he said he is not angry or bitter.

"God lives in my heart and I love everybody," he said Tuesday as he left the courthouse. "I can't live my life hating nobody."Tillman's mother, Catherine Martin, visited him every week. She often drove through rain and heavy snow from to the Cheshire Correctional Institution, where she and her son sang gospel songs to each other through the clear pane that divided them.

"I always told my son, never give up. Have faith in God and he will carry you there," she said Tuesday.Tillman would not say whether he plans to sue or seek other compensation for the wrongful conviction.Some states provide set dollar amounts for every day or year of incarceration.

Others add free college tuition, counseling and other services.But Connecticut has no set procedures. The General Assembly can grant people permission to sue for wrongful conviction or, as some states have done, pass a special act to pay an exonerated person directly.Several lawmakers have said they support the idea of creating a compensation policy, and that Tillman deserves something for the 18 years taken from him.

"The notion of the system doing an injustice to someone who's innocent by incarcerating them needs attention," said state Sen. Jonathan Harris, D-West Hartford. "We need to be able to look at ways to compensate them. That makes a lot of sense to me."

Copyright © 2006, The Associated Press

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Doswell Troubled by Domestic Disputes

Man cleared of rape by DNA back in court in domestic frays

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

By Gabrielle Banks, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Thomas Doswell yesterday was granted a protection-from-abuse order against one former girlfriend, but a judge denied a PFA against a second ex-girlfriend.

The East Hills man was released from prison in August after serving 18 years on a rape conviction. DNA tests cleared him.

In recent months, Mr. Doswell has been involved in two domestic disputes.

Allegheny County Judge Kathleen Mulligan yesterday granted Mr. Doswell's request for a PFA against Zsaneen Sidney of Homewood. He testified that she made threatening calls in June after he ended their relationship. Ms. Sidney was not present at the hearing.

Ms. Sidney, 35, said last night that she didn't attend because a woman came to her door around 11:30 p.m. Monday and cautioned her against appearing at the hearing. She said the woman, whom she could not identify, told her there would be "problems" if she went to court. The woman told her that there would be "more trouble with the Doswell family if you go down there," Ms. Sidney said.

"Whoever she was she got her message across," said Ms. Sidney, who is a single parent of a 16-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son.

She said they had a brief relationship that ended after Mr. Doswell stood her up one evening.
"I weigh 110 pounds. Why would you need a PFA for me?" she asked. "There is no way that if you look at Tommy Doswell and look at me that you would ever need a PFA against me."

The judge denied a permanent PFA against Adrienne Young, a crime victim advocate from Garfield.

Ms. Young and Mr. Doswell had an eight- to 10-month romantic relationship, said attorney John Elash. His client said Ms. Young harassed him after he ended the relationship June 23.

But Ms. Young's lawyer replayed phone messages she said he left on the 24th and 26th declaring he loved her.

She said he choked her June 29 because she wanted to remove him from her insurance policy for a used car he had just purchased.

Last week, Mr. Doswell was held for trial on an assault charge in connection with the June 29 incident.

He told Judge Mulligan he grabbed Ms. Young by the wrists that day because she scratched him and ripped his shirt. Ms. Young said she did this because he was choking her.

The judge said there was not enough evidence to issue an order against Ms. Young, but she strongly suggested the two stay away from each other.

Lawyer Lee Rothman said yesterday's ruling vindicated his client. "She was very upset because she said this was a falsified protection from abuse. He was attempting to use the Family Division of courts as a sword to assist him in his defense of the criminal case."

Doswell Faces Charges for Simple Assault

Former inmate is held for trial in assault

Friday, July 07, 2006

By Gabrielle Banks, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Thomas Doswell arrives at City Court yesterday with his mother, Olivia Doswell, for a preliminary hearing on a simple assault charge.

Adrienne Young , Founder of Tree of Hope, speaks to the media after the preliminary hearing yesterday.

The four snapshots spread before a City Court judge yesterday reveal the truth about what happened June 29, according to the opposing attorneys in a highly publicized simple assault case.

The prosecutor said they show Adrienne Young was choked and slapped by Thomas Doswell, a former friend with whom she had been romantically involved. Mr. Doswell's attorney says they show a fake case by a woman who was harassing his client. The judge held the matter for trial.
Ms. Young, director of the crime victims' support agency Tree of Hope, testified that she and Mr. Doswell began to argue because she wanted to remove him from her insurance for a faulty car he had just purchased. She said he held her throat with both hands for "about a minute" and then smacked her left cheek. Her neighbor later took the close-up flash photographs, which showed a thick red mark along the left side of her neck.

The attorney for Mr. Doswell, who was exonerated last year after serving 19 years in prison on a 1986 rape charge, asked Ms. Young, "How much makeup did you put on before you took these photos?"

"Zero," she said.

Attorney James E. DePasquale asked Ms. Young whether she sought medical attention after the incident. No, she said.

"You're saying Mr. Doswell strangled you for one minute," he said, "and you didn't seek any attention at all?"

Ms. Young repeated she did not, however she did call 911. A city patrol officer who met her at a car wash a few blocks from the site of their argument -- outside Mr. Doswell's sister's house in Homewood -- testified he saw the red marks on her face and neck.

Magisterial District Judge James Haney stated he had heard enough evidence to hold Mr. Doswell for trial on the assault charge and set the formal arraignment for Sept. 21. Mr. Doswell remains free on bond.

Ms. Young, 49, said she met the 47-year-old East Hills man through her work helping recently released inmates find employment, education, transportation and other services.

She denied Mr. DePasquale's portrayal of last week's argument, which he said became heated because Mr. Doswell did not want to date her and she did not want him to see other women.
"That argument was never about another woman," Ms. Young said yesterday. "It was about the car and the brakes that went out."

While awaiting the hearing, Ms. Young sat flanked by a brother, several longtime colleagues and former inmates who vouched for her credibility and dedication to inmates, victims and their families.

"It's a tragedy, biting the hand that's feeding you," said Connie Craig, vice president of the state NAACP's prison programs. Ms. Craig said she has known Ms. Young "over 27 years" and met Mr. Doswell while he was serving at the State Correctional Institution Somerset: "There's no doubt in my mind, what Adrienne said is true."

For the whole story, click here.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

DNA Proof May Not Go to Jury

This article was originally published in the LA Times on July 10, 2006

By Henry Weinstein, Times Staff Writer July 10, 2006

An unusual wrinkle has developed in the case of a man who was exonerated by DNA testing after serving 12 years in prison for a rape and robbery he did not commit.

Although the Riverside County district attorney declared Herman Atkins innocent six years ago, the county wants to prevent the jury hearing his wrongful conviction lawsuit from learning about the evidence that cleared him.

Atkins, now 40, was accused of raping a woman during a 1986 robbery in a Lake Elsinore shoe store. DNA tests not available during Atkins' 1988 trial were later requested by the defense, and they eliminated him as a source of semen on the victim's sweater. The FBI lab confirmed the results.

The rapist was never caught.As soon as Riverside County Dist. Atty. Grover Trask II learned in early 2000 of the DNA findings, he filed court papers saying Atkins should be freed immediately.

DNA tests had eliminated Atkins "as a possible source of [the] semen … and thus, [he] was not her assailant," Trask's motion said.

"The case underscores how profoundly advances in science and technology have affected criminal justice," he said.Atkins filed suit, claiming that a Riverside detective had fabricated evidence and misrepresented proof in court.

Facing a July 18 trial date in Los Angeles federal court, private lawyers representing Riverside County have argued that innocence does not matter. The sole issue is whether Atkins' rights were violated, they say.

They are also challenging the reliability of the DNA tests. If the county were able to cast doubt on Atkins' innocence, that could have a significant impact on the trial.

In a court declaration filed recently, Riverside's attorney, Christopher D. Lockwood, wrote, referring to the DNA sample, "I am aware of multiple reasons to question the chain of custody. I have never seen any evidence to show that the DNA testing was done properly or that DNA evidence is always 100% conclusive."

Atkins' attorneys sharply disagree with the county's position."The prejudice to Atkins would be immeasurable if the jury did not hear conclusive evidence that he is innocent," Atkins' attorneys Peter Neufeld, Deborah Cornwall and Cameron Stewart said in court papers.

A hearing on the issue is set for Tuesday before U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson.Both Lockwood and Atkins' lawyers declined to comment beyond what was in their court papers.

Earlier in the civil case, Riverside sheriff's Det. Danny C. Miller, a key investigator in the rape case, said in a signed pleading that Atkins' innocence had been established by the DNA tests.

But Lockwood has told the court that Miller is unwilling to file an admission that Atkins had been cleared, although he has offered no evidence to refute the FBI tests, according to papers filed by Atkins' attorneys.

While keeping out the DNA results, the county's lawyers also want to introduce evidence that the rape victim and two witnesses identified Atkins during his trial.

Atkins' attorneys counter that it would be absurd to allow Riverside's lawyers to introduce eyewitness testimony that has been refuted by DNA tests, particularly if the defense is not allowed to present the DNA results.

"In light of the uncontested DNA results, this ID testimony can no longer be considered reliable, or even probative, evidence of Atkins' guilt," they wrote in a recent motion. "Human memory is fallible. DNA testing, when replicated by two laboratories and where there is no evidence of contamination, is not. Miller's mere innuendo cannot change this irrefutable fact."

Their brief emphasizes that 78% of the first 130 DNA exonerations in the U.S. involved mistaken eyewitness identifications.Edward T. Blake, director of Forensic Science Associates in Richmond, Calif., and a nationally known expert, did the initial DNA testing in this case.

He became apoplectic when asked about Lockwood's questioning of the DNA evidence.

"The fully documented and illustrated scientific reports in the Atkins case are a matter of public record and certainly available to Mr. Lockwood," Blake said.

"There never has been any issue in the Atkins case with regard to evidence 'chain of custody' issues, nor has there ever been any issue with regard to the scientific rigor of the analysis that exonerated Mr. Atkins.

"Lockwood's statement is "an insult to everyone in the criminal justice system" who participated in Atkins' release, including defense lawyers, Blake's lab, the FBI lab, Trask and the judge who freed Atkins, Blake said in a telephone interview.

"Do you think that just because a guy in prison and a defense lawyer say he's innocent that everyone falls over backward and says 'OK. We will open the prison doors.' You must be kidding," Blake said.He said that when a convicted inmate is seeking release from prison, he has to meet a very high standard.

"If Herman Atkins had not met that burden of proof, he would not be a free man today," Blake said.

Legal experts said it was highly unusual for a lawyer to attempt to negate DNA results in a case like this one.Locke Bowman, legal director of the MacArthur Justice Center in Chicago, has worked on several civil suits following wrongful convictions.

He said there are "precious few legal authorities" on the issue of whether a jury is entitled to hear about the actual innocence of an exonerated inmate.In one recent case, U.S. District Judge Paul Plunkett in Chicago issued a strong ruling in favor of bringing evidence of innocence before a jury, Bowman noted.

After spending 15 years of a life sentence in prison for murder during a store robbery, James Newsome was cleared after new technology showed that fingerprints left in the store by the killer did not match his.

Jim Edgar, then the governor of Illinois, pardoned Newsome and declared him innocent.Newsome filed a damages case against Chicago asserting, among other points, that detectives rigged a lineup against him. Lawyers for the city asserted that the issue of innocence was irrelevant.

Plunkett disagreed, saying that excluding the evidence of innocence would have been "highly prejudicial."

"It would have invited jurors to draw the impermissible inference that he was actually guilty and thus absolve defendants of any misconduct," the judge said.

Chicago lawyer Phil Beck, who represented Newsome in the civil suit, said in a phone interview, "The case would not have had nearly the appeal on the damages side if it were a situation that he was wrongfully convicted because the police did not read him his Miranda rights and it was an open question whether he did it.

"I argued that it's 100 times worse to be in prison if you are innocent because the mental anguish you go through is much worse," Beck said. The jury awarded Newsome $15 million, a verdict that was upheld on appeal.

Atkins lives in Fresno, where he is pursuing a graduate degree in psychology. He and his wife, Machara Hogue, have set up a small foundation to help others who have been exonerated obtain basic necessities when they get out of prison.

Copyright © 2006, The Los Angeles Times

Monday, July 10, 2006

Lost DNA Evidence a Real Problem in New York City Cases

New York Fails at Finding Evidence to Help the Wrongfully Convicted


Published: July 6, 2006

Alan Newton, a former bank teller from the Bronx, is due to leave prison today after serving 22 years for a rape he did not commit — a victim first of mistaken identification, then of a housekeeping problem of epic scope.

For more than a decade, Mr. Newton, 44, pleaded in state and federal courts for DNA testing that was not available when he was tried, but Police Department officials said they could not find the physical evidence from the case. That evidence, a rape kit taken from a woman who was kidnapped and assaulted, was located only after a special request was made last year by a senior Bronx prosecutor to a police inspector.

The rape kit, it turned out, was in its original storage bin from 1984, Barrel No. 22, in the same police warehouse that the authorities said they had searched at least three times since Mr. Newton first asked in 1994.

The long-delayed DNA tests proved the innocence of Mr. Newton, who had refused to participate in a sex-offender treatment program in prison, ruining his chance for an earlier parole. He plans to come to court today dressed in one of the suits he wore to work half his lifetime ago.

At least 17 other people who have been convicted of serious crimes in New York City, and who maintain that they are innocent, have been unable to obtain DNA testing because the authorities say they cannot find the evidence, said Vanessa Potkin, a staff lawyer with the Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in Manhattan, a legal clinic that helps convicts get DNA tests.

By the Innocence Project's tally, the city has one of the worst records in the country for finding old evidence when it is sought by people seeking to clear their names:
Of the New York City cases that the project has been unable to resolve, 50 percent involved DNA evidence that had been lost or destroyed, compared with an average of 32 percent nationally.

"It has been much more difficult for us to locate forensic evidence in New York City than any other jurisdiction," Ms. Potkin said. "Mr. Newton could have been proven innocent in 1994."
A police official, Deputy Commissioner Paul J. Browne, said the department was investigating why the rape kit had not been found earlier. "Beginning five years ago," he said, "the Property Clerk's Office improved its procedures regarding DNA evidence, which includes approximately 17,000 rape kits, by segregating DNA evidence and storing it separately from all other evidence."

With more people and more crime than any other American city, New York also stores more evidence — over 1 million pieces in a central warehouse in Queens, and more in satellite facilities in each borough — and until recently, its inventory system consisted of handwritten ledgers and index cards. Besides storerooms run by the Police Department, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner also keeps some biological evidence.

One man who, with a co-defendant, has unsuccessfully chased evidence through the criminal justice system, said he appreciated that vast amounts of material must be stored but said even tiny fractions of it could have the power to right lives.

"I understand there's megatons of evidence all over the place," said the man, Reginald Connor, 38, who was paroled two years ago. "But these are people's lives that are being turned upside down because of stuff like this. Where is the stuff that can overturn our case and show we are innocent?"

For the whole story, click here.