innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Innocence Commission In North Carolina

This article by the Associated Press originally ran on

RALEIGH, North Carolina (AP) -- Inmates in North Carolina who claim they were wrongly convicted got a new avenue of appeal Thursday as Gov. Mike Easley signed a law creating a state innocence commission described as the first of its kind in the nation.
The commission, modeled after one in the United Kingdom, was created after several high-profile convictions were overturned in North Carolina.

The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission will review innocence claims from people who can present new evidence that hasn't been considered in court.
The eight-member commission will begin accepting claims in November. If five or more commission members agree there is enough evidence of potential innocence, the case would be sent to a panel of three Superior Court judges. Overturning a conviction would require a unanimous decision by the three judges.

Easley, a former prosecutor and attorney general, said North Carolina residents should be proud of the commission.

"Its creation gives our criminal justice system yet another safeguard by helping ensure that the people in our prisons in fact, belong there," Easley said in a statement after signing the bill without a public ceremony.

Among the high-profile cases of wrongful conviction was that of Darryl Hunt, who served 18 years in prison for the 1984 murder of a Winston-Salem newspaper employee before he was exonerated in 2003 by DNA evidence. Easley later pardoned him.

In 2004, Alan Gell, a onetime death row inmate, was retried and acquitted in a 1995 killing after it was revealed prosecutors withheld key evidence.
While other states have created panels to improve legal procedures to reduce the likelihood of wrongful conviction, North Carolina's commission will consider individual cases.

"It is the first of its kind in the nation," said Eric Ferrero with the Innocence Project, a New York-based legal clinic that handles cases where DNA testing can lead to overturning a conviction.

Convicts who pleaded guilty in their original cases will not be eligible to submit their claims for two years. After that time, the eight-member commission would have to agree unanimously to send the case to the judges' panel.

The North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys had objected to that provision because people who pleaded guilty in court can now proclaim their innocence. Garry Frank, the group's president, said it was "kind of making a mockery of the system."

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Charges Dropped in Cadigan Murders

By Andy


Kewaunee County prosecutors on Tuesday dismissed murdercharges against Beth LaBatte, 39, the woman who was once convicted and imprisoned for 10 years for the 1991 deaths of sisters Ceil and AnnCadigan.

LaBatte's case was championed by the University of Wisconsin LawSchool's Innocence Project. Kewaunee County District Attorney Andrew Naze announced the state's decision to drop the charges as the case wasgearing up to go to trial a second time.

The Innocence Project won motions to have evidence from the case re-analyzed using current DNA technology and planned to use those findings at trial.

"The defense case got better and better as the months went by after thenew trial was granted," said First Assistant State Public Defender Henry Schultz. LaBatte has been free after relatives posted $112,000 worth ofproperty as bail.

Outagamie County Circuit Court Judge Dennis Luebke,who heard the original trial, in November granted LaBatte a new trial.The move hinged on the new DNA results that showed that blood on items connected to the Cadigan murders did not belong to LaBatte. Naze said key witnesses in the case have died and considering the"significant passage of time and the high cost to taxpayers, asuccessful outcome at a new trial is unlikely.

"We have pursued all available leads in attempting to developsignificant new evidence," Naze said. "However, after conferring withthe investigators and my staff, I am satisfied that the state would notbe able to meet the heavy burden of proving the case beyond a reasonable doubt."

Schultz gave credit to the two lawyers and six students from theInnocence Project. "I've been doing this over 25 years and there's onlytwo or three times I've had a first-degree murder case dismissed,"Schultz said. LaBatte was arrested for the Cadigan murders in 1996 and eventually convicted of two counts of first-degree intentional homicide and twocounts of armed robbery for the beating deaths of the sisters, ages 85and 90, inside their Kewaunee County farmhouse.

LaBatte was sentenced to life in prison for each count.Efforts to reach LaBatte on Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Kewaunee Enterprise reporter Kevin Boneske contributed to this report.

Julie Rea-Harper Cases Raises Questions

Published Tuesday, August 01, 2006

CARLYLE - An Illinois lawmaker says the acquittal of an indigent woman retried on charges that she fatally stabbed her son in 1997 illustrates why the state's special fund for death-penalty defendants should be expanded to include other murder defendants like her.
The Julie Rea-Harper "case bothers me. It raises questions," said Rep. Paul Froelich, R-Schaumburg. "The prosecutor can say, 'OK, I'm not going to seek death,' and you shut off that assistance."

Opponents of expanding the state's Capital Litigation Trust Fund say it could be too costly to the state, divert resources from other parts of the criminal justice system and generate fraud.
Set up in the fallout of 1990s revelations that Illinois had sent more than a dozen wrongfully convicted people to death row, the fund assures death penalty defendants the right to two private attorneys with capital-murder trial experience, with the state paying them up to $140 an hour and covering other defense expenses.

The state allocates about $4.5 million a year for the program, which has funded about 200 cases since it started in January 2000 but has provided nothing in the hundreds of non-death penalty murder trials in Illinois every year.

Harper, 37, was represented in her first trial in 2002 by a public defender who, her backers say, wasn't experienced enough. Jurors convicted her, and she served two years of a 65-year sentence before she won a new trial in 2004.

Jurors in the Clinton County community of Carlyle, about 70 miles east of St. Louis, acquitted her last week. She was represented free of charge in the retrial by a legal team including Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions and prominent Chicago attorney Ron Safer.

By Safer's estimates, Harper's defense on charges that she killed 10-year-old Joel Kirkpatrick - her only child - at her one-time Lawrence County home would have cost upward of $1 million to a paying client.

"What happens if we don't devote half a million to a million dollars in free legal services?" Safer asked. He said expanding the trust fund would "even the scales of justice" in murder cases.
When Harper first was charged in 2000 with her son's death, prosecutors chose not to seek the death penalty. Illinois' death-penalty reforms of the late 1990s included state-funded resources available for defendants who might face execution, providing them with experienced lawyers, private investigators and other aid, but none of that was available for Harper or others who potentially faced life in prison.

"When they took the death penalty off the table, that meant losing the resources that normally are at the disposal" of capital murder defendants, putting Rea-Harper "at a tremendous disadvantage" in her first trial, said Larry Golden of the Downstate Innocence Project at the University of Illinois at Springfield. "For us, this case is first of all about Julie, but (also) the larger problems of the criminal justice system."

But arguing that expanding the trust fund "will benefit a few high-powered lawyers," Democratic state Sen. William Haine of Alton - a former Madison County state's attorney - said the first step should be to help counties boost salaries of prosecutors and public defenders.

In its current, limited form, Haine said, the trust fund is vulnerable to abuse. The State Journal-Register in March 2004 cited as an example a Minnesota lawyer who, in defending convicted child-killer Cecil Sutherland of Mount Vernon in 2004, tapped the fund for more than $2 million, including $900,000 for his own fee.

Ed Parkinson, special prosecutor in both of Harper's trials, said last week that expanding protections of the trust fund "would be a good idea," noting that "it does seem kind of unfair that if the prosecutor doesn't seek death, the defendant doesn't get those resources."

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Innocence Links


Innocence Commission
Birmingham News
Songs of innocence, songs of experience
Editorial - “Alabama, in particular, should look closely at the commission approved Wednesday by North Carolina legislators. If signed by Gov. Mike Easley, the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission would be established to review cases where new evidence suggests a wrongful conviction occurred. …No matter what Attorney General Troy King says, Alabama is not immune from such mistakes. It has had inmates cleared by DNA testing, and it has others - even on Death Row - who make a compelling case of innocence even without the help of DNA evidence.”


Eyewitness ID Reform
Journal Inquirer
Are some wrongful convictions inevitable? Experts don't see police errors in Tillman case
The Tillman mistaken ID is analyzed: “…To criticize mug-book identifications raises the difficult question of how police could solve crimes committed against strangers if they were deprived of this technique. Steven D. Penrod, a psychology professor at the City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says Tillman's case provides ‘a lesson about the unreliability of eyewitness identification.’ But he adds, ‘There is not a lesson about police practices in this case.’ ‘I would not fault the police for doing what they did,’ agrees Robert W. Shomer, a psychologist in Encino, Calif., who has testified hundreds of times as an expert on eyewitness identification over 30 years. The chief moral of the story thus may be a particularly sobering one: Some erroneous criminal convictions may be unavoidable.”


Eyewitness ID Reform
Associated Press
Researchers: Flaws in police lineups convict the innocent
"Florida has a lot of work to do," said Stephen Saloom, the Innocence Project's policy director. "The state would do well to learn from the massive body of peer-reviewed research that establishes a simple way to significantly decrease the likelihood of mistaken eyewitness identification." State Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, said the lineup issue did not come up in his Senate Criminal Justice Committee this year, even as it approved a bill eliminating DNA testing deadlines for prisoners seeking to prove their innocence. "I think it is something we really ought to look at or at least give it serious discussion," Wise said. "Our objective is to get the bad guys, not the innocent."


Wrongful Conviction
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Jury acquits mother in 1997 stabbing of son
“Harper had been imprisoned for the crime in 2002 but set free on a technicality two years later… Harper's defense was that an intruder committed the murder, and her lawyers spent much of the two-week trial showing how it could have been [serial killer Tommy Lynn] Sells. In failing to convict Harper, 37, jurors handed a stinging defeat to police and prosecutors, who have maintained for almost a decade that Harper stabbed her 10-year-old son 12 times as he slept in her Lawrenceville, Ill., home in the pre-dawn hours of Oct. 13, 1997, then concocted the story of a masked intruder. It was only later that Sells' name was attached to that theory, after he told police, journalists and others that he may have committed the murder during his national string of killings in the late 1990s.” The Downstate Innocence Project and the Center on Wrongful Convictions supported her case. You can read a full profile of Ms. Harper’s case on the Center’s web site,


DNA Databanks
Indianapolis Star
Advocates say new law will crack down on repeat offenders, but critics call process intrusive
“Starting Monday, felons in Marion County must begin providing the samples. Felons in counties surrounding Indianapolis must begin the process in August, with the rest of the counties phased in after that. Previously, only those who committed the most violent crimes were routinely tested. But under a 2005 state law, all felons in the state must submit to the procedure… ‘I'm not sure simply being convicted of any felony ought to subject you to…that kind of intrusion,’ said Paula Sites, assistant executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council.”

Other Forensic Databanks
Crime lab uses ballistics ID system to work on sniper evidence
“Indiana State Police will use a high-tech computer called the Integrated Ballistics Identification System to help them determine the type of weapon used. It is one of seven ballistics identification systems in Indiana…The IBIS computer system takes digital images of bullets and cartridge casings and compares unique markings against a database of more than 25,000 entries…He said the county IBIS computer successfully found 125 matches since 1997. In addition to sharing information with six other IBIS computers in Indiana, examiners can also look for matches across the country.”


False Confession; Wrongful Conviction; DNA at Trial
LA Times
One man goes free, another waits
An update on Travis Hayes, exoneree Ryan Matthews’ co-defendant: “Today, at the Jefferson Parish courthouse in Gretna, Hayes' lawyers will call witnesses in an attempt to persuade Judge Henry G. Sullivan Jr. to release Hayes, who is now 26. The lawyers maintain that the only thing that links Hayes to the crime is a coerced confession he gave to police after six hours of interrogation. Prosecutors are expected to present witnesses, including the detectives who interrogated Hayes, on Friday… David P. Wolff, the lead prosecutor, said the fact that neither Hayes' nor Matthews' DNA was on the ski mask did not ‘mean that these men never wore the mask. It is possible for them, for Ryan Matthews to have worn the mask, or Travis Hayes for that matter, and not left DNA’… ‘I reviewed Hayes' confession and a lot of the police reports. It is the most naked, uncorroborated confession I have ever read, devoid of relevant detail,’ said [Steven] Drizin, who is the director of the law school's Center on Wrongful Convictions."

DNA Databanks
New Orleans Times Picayune
One month after reinforcements arrive: N.O. murders fall and arrests climb
"It has been a month since the unprecedented union of the New Orleans Police Department, the National Guard and the State Police freed up entire squads of NOPD officers to attack crime in the city's most dangerous neighborhoods. Since then, arrests in some crime-plagued neighborhoods have almost doubled, and the number of murders has been sliced nearly in half, police said… Capt. Bob Bardy, commander of the 2nd District -- which includes part of Central City, New Orleans' bloodiest neighborhood with 18 of this year's 67 murders -- said before the task forces hit the streets, his officers averaged between 150 and 180 arrests per week. Between July 9 and July 15, Bardy's officers made 318 arrests, he said. Of that total, 232 arrests were made by a hand-picked task force working his district.” Louisiana takes DNA samples from all arrestees. That’s a lot of samples – one wonders about their database’s backlog.


DNA Databanks
Baltimore Sun
Unintended consequences
Editorial – This is in response to the article “Evidence uncollected, crimes undeterred” that appeared in the Baltimore Sun on July 16th, about the backlog of offender samples that haven’t been uploaded into the Maryland database: “The Maryland State Police, the agency charged with collecting and processing inmate DNA, knew from a June 2004 legislative audit that it had fallen way behind in collecting prisoners' samples for its state databank. It did not have the staffing - despite a budget request for additional resources - to keep pace with state lawmakers' decision to expand the list of felons required to give their DNA. State police acknowledged the problem then and rallied local law enforcement to help collect samples… Requiring state agencies to do more without providing the funds to accomplish a mandate is a setup for failure.”


Crime Labs: Funding
Law Enforcement Technology
Crime lab funding: How important is a good crime lab to an agency?
This article appears here on, whose audience is, naturally, police: “Since science constantly changes, buying new equipment and training takes operating costs into the sky. It's a problem few politicians understand or want to confront. Meanwhile, back in the courtroom, defense attorneys and juries weaned on shows like the "CSI" series and "NCIS" want to know why the guy in the lab coat didn't do this test or that test. If the bottom line turns out to be "We don't have that capability," it's bound to affect the outcome of trials.”

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Senate confirms Arkansan to federal appellate bench
Article reports that the Senate confirmed U.S. Magistrate Judge Bobby Shepherd for a seat on the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. Judge Shepherd, who is from Arkansas, received a unanimous vote from the Senate Judiciary Committee, and there was no registered opposition during a voice vote in the full Senate. Both of Arkansas’ Democratic senators strongly supported Judge Shepherd’s nomination. Sen. Mark Pryor said that “[P]resident Bush made a rare find in nominating Judge Shepherd,” and Sen. Blanche Lincoln said that “[Judge Shepherd] has the judicial temperament and the good experience to perform well.” President Bush has now nominated seven of the 11 judges on the 8th Circuit, which is the only circuit in the nation with a majority of Bush appointees.

Denver Post
Gorsuch confirmed for 10th Circuit
Article reports that the Senate confirmed associate U.S. attorney general Neil Gorsuch for a seat on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. A Colorado native, Mr. Gorsuch received support from both Sen. Wayne Allard (R., CO) and Sen. Ken Salazar (D., CO). The Senate confirmed him by voice vote because his nomination was uncontroversial. Mr. Gorsuch’s writing suggests that he is conservative. In an article in the National Review in 2005, Mr. Gorsuch wrote that “[A]merican liberals have become addicted to the courtroom, relying on judges and lawyers rather than elected leaders and the ballot box, as the primary means of effecting their social agenda.” During his time as associate U.S. attorney general Mr. Gorsuch helped manage the Justice Department’s civil litigation.

DNA Databanks
States collecting DNA from arrestees
“Led by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), critics say the state and federal laws reverse constitutional guarantees and render suspects guilty until proven innocent. Supporters say the aim is to develop a network of shared information to fight crime nationwide. DNA sampling of convicted felons has been used to aid thousands of investigations, according to a state-by-state clickable map maintained by the FBI. DNA evidence has also been used to exonerate those who have been wrongly convicted. Nationwide, more than 180 people have been freed with the help of DNA evidence since 1989, according to the Innocence Project, a legal clinic based in New York.” Kansas state Rep. Pat Colloton (R) believes this issue will go to the United States Supreme Court.

DNA Databanks
Grand Forks Herald
Senate OKs Dru's law
“After two years, two passes through the Senate and one abrupt halt at the House, North Dakota representatives are preparing for the passage of Dru's Law…The bill has now become part of larger legislation that cracks down on sex offenders…The Senate and the House will add Dru's Law to the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which would require sex offenders to register where they work, live and go to school and would increase the maximum penalty of not registering to 10 years in prison. The bill was passed by the Senate on Thursday evening and is expected to come up for a vote in the House sometime next week. President Bush is expected to sign it into law.” Among other things, the law will “establish a comprehensive federal DNA database of material collected from convicted molesters, and procedures for the routine DNA collection and comparison to the database when someone has been convicted of such an offense.” For info on the trial of the man accused of killing Dru Sjodin, see North Dakota.


Other Forensic Databanks; Crime Labs: Backlogs
Cease-fire for Silk City's sake
"As the sound of gunfire increasingly becomes just one more syncopated note in [Paterson, NJ's] soundtrack, residents have clamored for an end to the shootings, which may be gang-related and have taken five lives so far this year…In Paterson, a state trooper, Detective J. Mandziuk, has been assigned since late May to help city police load evidence from criminal investigations into statewide intelligence databases. This is the first phase of CeaseFire, said state police Capt. Christopher J. Andreychak, project director of the statewide program. The aim is for the state police to provide extra resources to the Paterson police, whose officers are often tied up responding to local
calls and who do not have time to manage such databases. Mandziuk's priority is to help Paterson police log about 1,500 confiscated guns into the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network, or NIBIN.... Paterson is not the only city with a backlog of guns waiting to be put into the NIBIN program. Atlantic City has about 500, Jersey City 1,600, and Camden 3,000… When these tasks are complete, Mandziuk will go through the Paterson Police evidence locker to see if there is anything that was recovered at a crime scene that should be logged into the statewide CODIS…”


Preservation of Evidence; Life After Exoneration
Amsterdam News
The mis-adjudication of Alan Newton: Man freed after serving 21 years on wrongful conviction
An update on Alan Newton and the inquiry into preservation policies in NYC: “The Innocence Project told the AmNews it will formally ask the NYPD to aggressively search for evidence in more than a dozen cases the Innocence Project had closed in recent years, as well as six open cases in which evidence has not yet been located. The organization also plans to request a specific accounting of what went wrong in locating evidence in Newton’s case and what policies and procedures will be implemented to avoid future tragedies like this one.”


DNA at Trial
Grand Folks Herald
Attorney claims no samples remain for further testing
Defense attorneys for Alfonso Rodriguez, Jr, who is being tried for the kidnapping leading to the death of UND senior Dru Sjodin, are seeking to have certain DNA evidence thrown out because the law enforcement scientist that tested it didn't leave any remaining sample for the defense to test. Ann Marie Gross, a forensic scientist with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension's lab in St. Paul, said proper procedure is for DNA samples to be divided before testing so that something remains for possible further testing, except when a sample of DNA is too small and is "consumed" in the testing. In the case of one DNA sample that was consumed in testing, the drop of blood was so small, "it was not possible to cut that blood stain in half," Gross said.


DNA at Trial
Akron Beacon Journal
DNA expert startles court
“Eyes drooped and yawns were hardly stifled as a state expert gave lecture-like DNA testimony in Donald Lavell Craig's capital murder trial in Summit County Common Pleas Court. But near the end of DNA expert Lynda Eveleth's appearance Thursday, jurors and onlookers snapped to attention when she offered the odds that someone other than Craig left the semen found on the body of 13-year-old Malissa Thomas. The numbers prompted someone in the courtroom audience to gasp and one juror's eyes and mouth to pop open wide. One chance in 4,912,000,000,000,000,000. That's almost 5 quintillion.”


Crime Labs: Oversight
Houston Chronicle
City flinches at rising lab-probe cost
“Some City Council members joined Houston police Tuesday in balking at spending another $1.5 million on an independent crime lab investigation that already has cost almost $4 million… ‘The last time Mr. Bromwich asked for an additional amount above the original estimate, we asked for assurances that we budgeted enough for him to finish the job,’ the mayor said. ‘We need to understand how much of Mr. Bromwich's time is needed at $395 an hour.’"

Crime Labs: Oversight
Houston Chronicle
City Hall deja vu
Editorial - “The independent probe of botched handling and analysis of evidence at the Houston police crime lab is entering the home stretch, but quibbling over its cost has idled special investigator Michael Bromwich and his staff… It's far too late in the game to foolishly compromise the prodigious work that Bromwich's team has already accomplished.”

Dallas Morning News
Exonerated prisoners often find difficulties with transition
“The daily struggles that Greg Wallis faces are typical of the hundreds of people nationwide who have been exonerated through DNA testing and released from prison. Almost all exhaust their finances in prison fighting to prove their innocence, and many suffer deep family fractures while locked away, according to a survey by the nonprofit Life After Exoneration Program. ‘They've got the normal problems of readjusting on the outside, and nobody wants to listen to their story,’ said [Jeff] Blackburn, who directs the Lubbock-based West Texas Innocence Project…Mr. Blackburn envisions having Mr. Wallis tell the story of his wrongful arrest and 18 years spent in prison to lawmakers in the next legislative session…He is asking [Wallis] to help lobby for changes in the way exonerees are compensated for the time they are locked away. Currently, compensation is taxed heavily. The exonerated also give up their right to sue over their convictions and false imprisonment by accepting restitution.”


Crime Labs: Backlogs
Associated Press
DNA backlogs, submissions grow in Wisconsin
“The number of criminal cases waiting for DNA tests in Wisconsin more than doubled from 2003 to 2005 as prosecutors submitted more and more evidence to the state crime labs, hunting for the surefire identifier that could seal a conviction, an Associated Press review found.”

Death Penalty; Innocence Network
Capital Times
Death penalty foes form group to fight referendum
“The committee is an umbrella group including the Wisconsin Coalition Against the Death Penalty, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Wisconsin Council of Churches and Amnesty International, according to Tom Cannon, who is coordinating the effort. The committee had collected $7,150 to use in fighting the death penalty by a July 20 reporting deadline. Contributors included the co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project as well as the Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which contributed $5,000…’Chris Ochoa was exonerated by the Innocence Project and his conviction was supported by DNA evidence that included him as a possible source of the semen in a dead woman's body. Actually, 17 percent of the Hispanic population would have been included in that profile. Later more sophisticated DNA testing was able to match to the true killer. But his first conviction was supported by DNA evidence. [DNA] does not by any means solve the problem of convicting and executing innocent people,’ Keith Findlay said."

Monday, July 31, 2006

Allen H. Coco Granted a New Trial

A man sentenced to life for rape will get a new trial because the DNA found on the victim didn't match his.

Although prosecutors conceded that Allen H. Coco's DNA wasn't a match for that from a man stabbed after raping a woman in 1997, District Attorney John DeRosier said he was not conceding that the Lake Charles man is innocent.

Coco, convicted in 1997 by Judge Greg Lyons, has said from the first that he was misidentified. His attorney, Ron Ware, noted that the victim never mentioned tattoos, and Coco's arms are covered with them.

State district court Judge Kent Savoie ordered a new trial for him Wednesday.

Assistant District Attorney Wayne Frey, who tried the case in November 1997, said DNA wasn't used as evidence because the sample obtained from the victim was too small to be tested at the time.

Defense attorney Ava DeMontagne, of the Innocence Project of New Orleans, asked for a new trial after commissioning an independent analysis which showed that it didn't match Coco's, Frey said.

Lyons sentenced Coco, a prior felon, to life on the rape charge and a concurrent 15-year term for burglary.

The woman testified that she was raped and sodomized late May 25 or early the next morning by a man who broke into her apartment. He had a bandanna over his face and tried to keep a pillow over her head, but she managed to grab the knife and stab him in the buttocks as he fled through a window, she said.

She identified Coco from a photo lineup, Lake Charles police Sgt. Ray Laviolet testified.

Coco showed no evidence of any knife wound to his buttocks when he was arrested June 20, Laviolet said.

An expert said bloodstains from the apartment matched Coco's blood type and enzyme makeup.

Julie Rae Harper Acquitted

Julie Rea Harper, a client of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, was acquitted by a jury in Clinton County, Illinois, on Wednesday, July 26, 2006, of the 1997 murder of her ten-year-old son, Joel Kirkpatrick — a crime that in all likelihood was committed by a serial killer who committed similar crimes in Missouri and Texas.

Harper had always maintained that an unknown intruder had entered her home in the early morning hours of October 13, 1997, and killed the child. In 2002, five years after the murder, Harper was convicted of the crime by a jury in Wayne County and sentenced to sixty-five years in prison. The conviction was reversed in 2004 by the Fifth District Illinois Appellate Court after, although not because, the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project developed evidence linking confessed killer Tommy Lynn Sells to the crime. Harper was released on bond after having spent nearly two years in prison.

A change of venue was granted to Clinton County, where jury selection began on July 11, 2006. On July 20, the jury heard an audio recording of Sells, made on Texas death row, confessing that he broke into Harper’s home in Lawrenceville and killed the child. He said on the tape that he had a clear recollection of the murder weapon, which he found in the house. Specifically, he said he took the knife from a butcher block in the kitchen and got into a scuffle with a woman — details bearing striking similarities to Harper’s account of what occurred.

In addition to presenting the Sells confession, Harper’s defense team adduced extensive forensic evidence demonstrating that there was a third person in the house who not only killed Joel Kirkpatrick but who also attacked Harper. This evidence included injuries to Harper that could not have been self-inflicted and bloodstains on her clothing demonstrating that she had struggled with a third person.

Prosecutors Ed Parkinson and David Rands contended that Sells, for whatever reason, was lying. They further argued that Harper killed her only child with no demonstrable motive, based on the fact that she was in the house when the crime occurred. The jury, however, found the prosecution’s contention unpersuasive and returned a not-guilty verdict on July 26 after deliberating twelve hours over two days.

The Center on Wrongful Convictions defense team that successfully represented Harper was led by Ronald S. Safer, of Schiff Hardin LLP, Karen Daniel and Jeffrey Urdangen, clinical professors of law at Northwestern University School of Law, and Judith Royal, a Center volunteer attorney. The team included three lawyers who began working on the Harper case as Bluhm Legal Clinic students and continued after graduation — Stephanie L. Horten, of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, Jessica Romero, of Schiff Hardin, and David Lieber, of DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary.

Study Shows Eye-Witness Reforms Are Effective

Study of Year-Long Pilot Project Shows that
Key Eyewitness Identification Reforms Are Effective

“The study of Hennepin County’s pilot project produces solid, reliable data that other cities,
counties, and states should look to when considering how to improve the accuracy of
eyewitness identification,” says Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck

(NEW YORK; JULY 26, 2006) – Results of a new study published in an academic review show that eyewitness identification reforms advocated by a cross-section of organizations and leaders can help protect innocent people and improve the accuracy of police lineups and other identification procedures. The study is the first to use scientifically valid research techniques to evaluate the eyewitness identification reform in the field – in a “real world” application, rather than an academic setting.

Results of a year-long pilot program using blind sequential lineups – those where the official administering the lineup doesn’t know who the suspect is, and subjects are presented to the witness one at a time, rather than all together – in Hennepin County, Minnesota, are published in the new issue of the Cardozo Public Law, Policy and Ethics Journal at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York.

The Hennepin County Attorney’s office spearheaded the effort to improve eyewitness identification procedures, and the data was analyzed by Nancy Steblay, an eyewitness scientist at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, who co-wrote the article with Amy Klobuchar, who is now serving her second term as Hennepin County Attorney, and Hilary Lindell Caligiuri, an Assistant Hennepin County Attorney.

The article, “Improving Eyewitness Identifications: Hennepin County’s Blind Sequential Lineup Pilot Project,” reports that the scientific evaluation of the year-long pilot project resulted in fewer witnesses identifying “fillers” (or lineup subjects who are not the actual suspect), which shows that blind sequential lineups reduce the number of witnesses who guess when identifying a suspect – and reduce the number of innocent people identified in lineups.

“There is a generation worth of peer-reviewed, scientific research that demonstrates the power of blind sequential lineups to improve the accuracy of eyewitness identifications – and this study shows that when properly administered in the field, law enforcement can employ these reforms to protect the innocent and apprehend the guilty,” said Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project. “This is the first of what we hope will be a number of field studies that use scientifically sound techniques to evaluate blind sequential lineups.”

The year-long pilot project in Hennepin County involved four police departments (in Minneapolis, two large suburban communities, and one smaller community). The newly published article explains that while the departments were initially concerned about implementing the procedures, they all implemented creative solutions and adapted quickly – and they all embraced the study’s findings.

“This new study shows what can happen when solid reforms are implemented by open-minded police departments whose top priority is making law enforcement more effective. The result is lineups that are more accurate, which only strengthens police investigations while also protecting the innocent,” Scheck said. “The study of Hennepin County’s pilot program produces solid, reliable data that other cities, counties, and states should look to when considering how to improve the accuracy of eyewitness identification procedures.”

The Hennepin County pilot project sought to answer two questions: whether the number and quality of identifications would change with the blind sequential lineup procedure, and whether police departments could smoothly and effectively implement the procedure. “Analysis of the data and anecdotal responses from the participating police agencies led to the conclusion that the new protocol is both efficient to implement and effective in reducing the potential for misidentifications,” the Cardozo Public Law, Policy and Ethics Journal article says.

According to the Innocence Project, 183 people nationwide have been exonerated through DNA testing, and eyewitness misidentification was a factor in 75 percent of those wrongful convictions.

Blind sequential eyewitness identification reforms are recognized by police, prosecutorial and judicial experience, as well as national justice organizations, including the National Institute of Justice and the American Bar Association. The benefits of these reforms are corroborated by over 25 years of peer-reviewed scientific research. A range of jurisdictions – including the State of New Jersey and cities such as Winston Salem, NC, Boston, MA, and Virginia Beach, VA – have implemented the reforms as standard procedure.

Rethinking Restitution in Texas

This article originally ran on Sunday, July 30, 2006 in the Dallas Morning News

The daily struggles that Greg Wallis faces are typical of the hundreds of people nationwide who have been exonerated through DNA testing and released from prison.
Almost all exhaust their finances in prison fighting to prove their innocence, and many suffer deep family fractures while locked away, according to a survey by the nonprofit Life After Exoneration Program.

Like Mr. Wallis, they enter free society ill equipped to make the transition, the study found.
"They feel like pariahs," said Mr. Wallis' attorney, Jeff Blackburn.
"They've got the normal problems of readjusting on the outside, and nobody wants to listen to their story," said Mr. Blackburn, who directs the Lubbock-based West Texas Innocence Project.

"For people to admit that an innocent person got locked up forces them to ask questions about how just the system is."

Mr. Wallis is the third convict Dallas County whom public defender Michelle Moore has helped to secure DNA tests that exonerated them. The stigma of being accused of such a taboo crime often follows them, she said.

"Employers look at that and say, 'Oh no, he was accused of rape. We're not going to do that,' " she said.

Mr. Blackburn is so confident that Mr. Wallis can successfully make the transition that he's asked him to help lead an effort to reform the way wrongfully convicted Texans are treated.

(The request came months after The Dallas Morning News expressed an interest in telling Mr. Wallis' story.)

Mr. Blackburn envisions having Mr. Wallis tell the story of his wrongful arrest and 18 years spent in prison to lawmakers in the next legislative session. "It's real important that they meet guys who've gotten out," Mr. Blackburn said.

He is asking him to help lobby for changes in the way exonerees are compensated for the time they are locked away. Currently, compensation is taxed heavily. The exonerated also give up their right to sue over their convictions and false imprisonment by accepting restitution.

During a meeting with Mr. Blackburn and Fort Worth attorney Mike Ware in late June, Mr. Wallis agreed to travel to Austin next month and tell his story at the first-ever statewide gathering of lawyers, investigators and law students who work on wrongful conviction cases.

"I think he's one of the few who's got the strength of character to get him through," Mr. Blackburn said. "At the same time, with him, this is a real classic example – this is a guy who's not working, can't afford a car, who's in terrible shape all because of what the government did to him."

Mr. Blackburn is also planning to ask hard questions of Irving police, starting with why Mr. Wallis was arrested and what is being done to find the real rapist.

"The problem is, it's not good enough to say it was a gross horrible injustice," he said.