innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Thursday, September 21, 2006

DNA Evidence Frees Man

This article appeared in the New York Times on September 21, 2006:

DNA Evidence Frees a Man Imprisoned for Half His Life

WHITE PLAINS, Sept. 20 — Jeffrey Mark Deskovic came of age in a maximum-security prison, doing time for a crime he did not commit.

Jeffrey Mark Deskovic with his lawyers, Nina Morrison and Barry Scheck at a news conference Wednesday. His mother, Linda McGarr, is at left.

Sixteen years ago, Mr. Deskovic was convicted of raping, beating and strangling a Peekskill High School classmate in a jealous fit of rage. DNA evidence presented at his trial showed that semen in the victim’s body was not his, but the police testified that he had confessed.

On Wednesday, after he fought exhaustive legal battles and wrote dozens of pleading letters that led him nowhere, Mr. Deskovic, 32, walked out of the Westchester County Courthouse an overjoyed if embittered man.

“I was supposed to finish my education, to begin a career,” he said. “The time period to have a family, to spend time with my family, is lost. I lost all my friends. My family has become strangers to me.

“There was a woman who I wanted to marry at the time that I was convicted, and I lost that too,” Mr. Deskovic added. “Given all that, I ask everybody: Would you be angry?”

Among the people who Mr. Deskovic said refused to review his case is Jeanine F. Pirro, the former Westchester district attorney, who took office after his trial; she is now the Republican nominee for state attorney general. The freed inmate and his lawyer expressed outrage that Ms. Pirro had scheduled a news conference to call for the reinstatement of the death penalty in New York just as Mr. Deskovic was being released Wednesday morning, but Ms. Pirro ended up canceling the event.

Ms. Pirro’s successor, Janet DiFiore, agreed to run the evidence through a national DNA databank after she was approached in June by Barry Scheck, a director of the Innocence Project, which works to free the wrongly convicted.

The decision to release Mr. Deskovic came after the DNA matched that of a man who is serving time for another Westchester murder. Ms. DiFiore declined to identify him but said he recently confessed to killing Angela Correa, 15, the girl Mr. Deskovic was convicted of killing, on Nov. 15, 1989.

Mr. Scheck said that Mr. Deskovic was the 184th person nationwide to be exonerated because of DNA evidence since 1989, and that his case highlights the importance of having the authorities videotape interviews with suspects, as many police departments nationwide have begun to do.

“We’ve learned a lot about false confessions in the past decade,” Mr. Scheck said at a news conference. “Videotaping of confessions and training of police officers can definitely lead to different results.”

The case against Mr. Deskovic hinged largely on a confession he made after six hours of questioning in a small interrogation room in Brewster, where two Peekskill detectives took him for a polygraph test, according to court documents.

Mr. Deskovic, a sophomore, and Ms. Correa, a freshman, were in two classes together. Both were quiet and did not have a lot of friends, according to his mother, Linda McGarr, and Ms. Correa’s stepfather, Pedro Rivera, who sat quietly in court to see Mr. Deskovic go free.

“I can’t tell you why, but I’ve always had a feeling that the police had the wrong guy,” said Mr. Rivera.

Mr. Rivera met Mr. Deskovic for the first time at Ms. Correa’s wake, but saw him numerous times after that, he said. Mr. Deskovic went to church with the family, dined at their home and took Ms. Correa’s younger sister to the movies, he recalled.

“Jeffrey cried a lot for Angela,” Mr. Rivera said. “He was very distraught.”

The police in Peekskill said Mr. Deskovic’s behavior seemed odd. At his trial, investigators said they grew suspicious of Mr. Deskovic because he was late for school the day after Ms. Correa’s murder and seemed “overly distraught” about the death of a girl who was not his close friend.

For two months, Mr. Deskovic denied having anything to do with Ms. Correa’s death. Finally, in late January 1990, he agreed to the polygraph test, which preceded the interrogation that led to his confession.

“Believing in the criminal justice system and being fearful for myself, I told them what they wanted to hear,” Mr. Deskovic said, by way of explanation. “I thought it was all going to be O.K. in the end,” because he was sure that the DNA testing would show his innocence.

In convicting Mr. Deskovic, the jury effectively chose to give more weight to his tearful confession than to the DNA and other scientific evidence.

The conviction seemed to indicate that jurors believed the prosecution theory that semen found in Ms. Correa’s body was likely from a consensual sexual relationship with someone else.

Many convicted criminals were compelled to give DNA samples in recent years, and the source of the semen in the victim’s body was apparently identified that way. Until such database comparisons were available, there was no way for Mr. Deskovic to disprove the prosecution’s theory, because there was no way to pinpoint whose semen it was.

While in prison, Mr. Deskovic said, he lived "from appeal to appeal," trying not to think of the 15-years-to-life sentence that hung over him. He finished high school, and earned an associate’s degree.

He played a lot of chess and learned how to type, fix computers and paint walls, he said. He also learned how to cook.

A year into his sentence, he converted to Islam. “It was a major factor in surviving prison in terms of my mental sanity,’’ he said.

After his release, Mr. Deskovic went with his mother, two aunts and two uncles for lunch at an Italian restaurant here. He ate tomatoes, mozzarella sticks, stuffed mushrooms, mussels and a dish of baked ziti. And for the first time, he talked on a cellphone.

“That was pretty weird,’’ he said afterward. “I was looking for the little holes where you talk into, and couldn’t find them.’’

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Baca Orders Review of Interrogation Policy

This article appeared in the Los Angeles Times on September 10, 2006

Baca Orders Review of Interrogation Policy

By Andrew Blankstein, Times Staff Writer

It began on an April afternoon in 2005 when neighbors in an upscale section of Manhattan Beach noticed black smoke billowing from an apartment rented by a local doctor.Firefighters arrived and quickly extinguished the blaze. But when they got inside the home's bedroom, they found the body of the doctor's housekeeper, Libia Cabrera, lying under a window and burned beyond recognition.

The 41-year-old Lawndale mother had been bound, gagged, sexually assaulted and stabbed in the neck. Months passed without any breaks. Then, in January, detectives arrested Herbert Orlando Gonzales, a 27-year-old clerical worker and aspiring musician. Gonzales was charged with murder and three other felony counts including arson and residential burglary and, if convicted, could have faced the death penalty. But the "big break" in the murder mystery has become a black eye for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. A Los Angeles judge last month threw out the case, raising concerns about the detectives' conduct during a lengthy interrogation.

Though the deputies claimed that Gonzales made incriminating statements during the interview, the judge concluded that they might have violated Gonzales' Miranda rights and bullied him into making incriminating statements that he later recanted. The judge also cast a skeptical eye on detectives' decision to record only part of the interrogation, saying later that the Sheriff's Department could not afford to audiotape the entire interview.The decision has reverberated throughout the Sheriff's Department, prompting Sheriff Lee Baca to launch a review of detectives' in-custody interrogations, including the one involving Gonzales.

Michael Gennaco, head of the Sheriff's Office of Independent Review, said he thought the department should consider standardizing policies for how interrogations are carried out and recorded.

Though Gennaco reserved judgment on the Gonzales case, he said it was important for the department to have a consistent policy.

He noted that a confession, absent supporting physical or circumstantial evidence, can be a tenuous foundation for a case.

The issue also has been debated at the state level. A blue-ribbon panel examining reform of the state's criminal justice system released a report in July urging the Legislature to adopt a law mandating electronic recording of all jailhouse interrogations.

The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice — which included Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer and LAPD Chief William J. Bratton — recommended that if a law enforcement officer fails to make an audiotape, the law should require that criminal juries be instructed to view any confessions with caution.Baca, who also was on the commission, abstained from the vote, saying he needed more time to study the proposal. The recommendations have since been adopted in a bill passed by the Legislature and sent to the governor's desk for signing.

Homicide investigators had little to go on when they started investigating Cabrera's killing.Witnesses said they saw little out of the ordinary that day. Detectives eventually focused on a surveillance video of the ground floor of the apartment building.Grainy images showed a white truck with a camper shell parked on the street. It also showed a man with a receding hairline and a white stripe on his pants walking back and forth.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Panel Takes Judge Off Federal Case

This article appeared in the Los Angeles Times on September 14, 2006.

Panel Takes Judge Off Federal Case

Appeals court says 'impartiality might be questioned' in a wrongful conviction suit against Riverside County.

By Henry Weinstein, Times Staff Writer

An appeals court Wednesday removed a federal judge in Los Angeles from a wrongful conviction lawsuit, ruling that U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson's impartiality in handling the case "might be questioned."The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals acted the same day Anderson declared a mistrial after the jury deadlocked over Herman Atkins' damages claim. The case will be retried before another judge.

Atkins, 40, spent 12 years in California prisons before DNA evidence cleared him of a 1986 Riverside County rape. His lawyers, who alleged misconduct by a Riverside County sheriff's deputy, had repeatedly complained that Anderson was biased against their client.Panel chief Judge Mary Schroeder and her colleagues Stephen Reinhardt and Kim Wardlaw said that their review of Anderson's rulings and the trial transcript "lead us to conclude that in light of [Anderson's] cumulative actions in this case, which has a long, bitter and controversial history, [his] impartiality might be questioned. It will be in the interests of the district judge as well as the parties, and it will preserve the appearance of justice, if any future trial in this matter is conducted by another judge."The appeals court concluded its ruling by urging that any new trial in the case "be expedited and held at the earliest possible date that is mutually convenient to the district court and the parties."The ruling came after the court closed for the day; Anderson could not be reached for comment. He was appointed by President Bush in 2002.Atkins sued Riverside County following his release from prison in 2000. Atkins' attorneys, Peter Neufeld and Deborah Cornwall, asserted that former Det. Danny C. Miller fabricated evidence and presented facts in a false light when he testified about the rape and robbery, which occurred at a Lake Elsinore shoe store.The proceedings had been hotly contested. Atkins' attorneys tried to get Anderson recused before the trial commenced, saying he had taken a hostile attitude toward them and their client in pre-trial rulings. That bid failed.The Times was unable to reach any of the eight jurors who considered the case. However, Neufeld and Cornwall said they had talked at length to a juror who told them that the panel voted unanimously that Miller had fabricated evidence and that he had failed to disclose that fact to Riverside county prosecutors. However, the juror told them that the panel could not reach a unanimous verdict on the question of whether the outcome of the trial would have been different if the fabrication had been disclosed, the attorneys said. Neufeld said the juror told them the panel split 6-2 in Atkins' favor on that issue.The outcome "seems particularly tragic given the fact that Herman was wrongly convicted and spent all those years in prison for something he didn't do," said Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project at Benjamin Cardozo Law School in New York, which did the legal work that led to Atkins' exoneration and release. Christopher Lockwood, one of Riverside County's attorneys, said that he could make no comment because of orders he had received from his client.Atkins now lives with his wife, Machara Hogue, in Fresno and is pursuing a graduate degree in psychology.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Va. Inmate Indicted in Killing That Altered DNA Testing Law

This article appeared in the Washington Post on Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Va. Inmate Indicted in Killing That Altered DNA Testing Law

By Maria Glod; Page A01

A serial rapist has been indicted in the 1982 rape and murder of a young Culpeper, Va., mother, a crime that nearly led to the execution of an innocent man and helped bring about unprecedented reforms in Virginia's criminal justice system.
Kenneth M. Tinsley, 61, who is serving a life sentence for an unrelated rape, was charged this week with capital murder, rape and sodomy in the slaying of Rebecca Lynn Williams, 19.

The charges against Tinsley might finally clear Earl Washington Jr., whose case had emerged as one of the nation's most troubling instances of a wrongful conviction. A mildly mentally retarded farmworker, Washington had been convicted in the slaying and served 17 years in prison -- including 9 1/2 on death row -- before DNA tests exonerated him in 2000. At one point, he was days from execution.
"Finally the government has charged the man who really killed Rebecca," said Robert T. Hall, one of Washington's attorneys.
Washington's story, perhaps more than any in Virginia, has sparked reform in the state's justice system. His case inspired a 2001 law allowing inmates who claim innocence to seek DNA testing at any time, loosening what was then the toughest rule in the nation on new evidence. It also led to a review of some cases analyzed in Virginia's DNA laboratory.
Although Tinsley was first implicated as a suspect in 2000 when scientific tests showed that his DNA was on a blanket in the victim's apartment, the investigation continued for years. Albemarle County Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Richard E. Moore, appointed as special prosecutor in the case, said yesterday that a Culpeper County grand jury handed up the indictments Monday.
"After a lengthy and thorough review of the Virginia State Police investigation into the death of Rebecca Lynn Williams . . . including a full consideration of the results of recent DNA testing along with the original investigation, witnesses, evidence, and autopsy, I determined that it was appropriate and in the interest of justice to seek indictments against Kenneth Maurice Tinsley," Moore said in a statement. He declined to comment further.
Williams was stabbed 38 times on a June day while she was in her apartment with two of her young children. Before losing consciousness, she told her husband, who had arrived to find her collapsed on the front stoop, that she had been attacked by a black man with a beard.
Washington became a suspect after he broke into the home of an elderly neighbor and struck her with a chair. He pleaded guilty in that assault, but investigators also asked him about other crimes, including Williams's killing.
Washington, who has an IQ of 69, was convicted and sentenced to death largely based on a confession his attorneys say was coerced. They noted that he got key details wrong, describing Williams, who was white, as black and saying she was alone.
In 1994, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder (D) commuted Washington's sentence to life in prison after primitive DNA testing cast doubt on his guilt. In 2000, Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) pardoned Washington after more advanced genetic testing failed to connect him to the crime and revealed that DNA on the blanket in Williams's apartment was Tinsley's.
At the time, Gilmore's office said scientists determined that genetic material on Williams's body was not Tinsley's, leaving open the possibility that the DNA on the blanket was unconnected to the crime.
However, Washington's attorneys later obtained the genetic samples. A private laboratory in California concluded that Virginia scientists were mistaken and that the genetic material on Williams's body was Tinsley's.
Peter Neufeld, another of Washington's attorneys, said yesterday that as a result of the indictment, he will ask Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) to proclaim Washington's innocence.
"Governor Gilmore granted him a pardon on the grounds that a jury would have reasonable doubt," Neufeld said. "We are going to ask Governor Kaine to amend the pardon to change the reason to Earl Washington's actual, unequivocal innocence."
Kaine's spokesman, Kevin Hall, said the governor would consider any request. But he added: "This new indictment, while significant, is not a final determination of guilt."
Tinsley, who is being held at Sussex II State Prison, is serving time for the 1984 rape of a waitress in her Albemarle apartment.
But court records filed in connection with a civil lawsuit say Tinsley denied any involvement in Williams's rape and murder when he was questioned by investigators in 2000. Tinsley said "that if he had committed this crime he would tell the truth because he would want to free a fellow inmate."