innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Use of Jailhouse Testimony Is Uneven in State (California)

This article appeard int he Los Angeles Times on September 21, 2006:

Use of Jailhouse Testimony Is Uneven in State
L.A. County has limited its reliance on inmate informants, but practice continues in Northern and Central California, lawyers tell commission.

By Henry Weinstein, Times Staff Writer

REDWOOD CITY, Calif. — Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley's chief assistant and a prominent defense lawyer said here Wednesday that Los Angeles County has dramatically reduced the use of jailhouse informant testimony over the last 15 years.But a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California said the practice continues in Northern and Central California with, in some instances, little policy or oversight regulating their use.

Fabricated testimony from jailhouse informants, who often are offered leniency in their own cases to testify, has been linked to wrongful convictions, especially in death penalty cases. Among those testifying about informant testimony before the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice were ACLU lawyer Natasha Minsker; John Spillane, the chief deputy district attorney of Los Angeles County; and Gigi Gordon, director of the Post Conviction Assistance Center in Los Angeles.The commission was created last year by the California Legislature to look into the problem of wrongful convictions. So far, two of its recommendations — to change witness identification procedures and to mandate recording of jailhouse interrogations — have been passed by state lawmakers. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has not signed either bill. In her testimony, Minsker said her office submitted California Public Record Act requests asking 48 district attorney's offices, 83 police departments and 28 sheriff's departments in Northern and Central California for their policies on jailhouse informants. She said only the Mendocino County district attorney's office responded in any substantial way.Twenty-nine district attorneys sent a "nearly identical form objection letter" asserting that the documents were either copyrighted, published by non-county sources or otherwise confidential, Minsker said.Commission Chairman John Van de Kamp and some of the other members of the panel rolled their eyes when Minsker told them about the copyright excuse."I'm a little surprised by that claim," Van de Kamp said.The ACLU might file a lawsuit to obtain the information, Minsker said.Ellen C. Yaroshefsky, a professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School at Yeshiva University in New York City, said that nearly a quarter of the convictions that the school's Innocence Project helped overturn involved "jailhouse snitch" testimony. And a national study done at Northwestern University Law School showed that jailhouse informants had been used against 45% of the defendants exonerated in capital cases, she said.Yaroshefsky suggested that jurors be given clear instructions to look skeptically at informant testimony and at the possibility that those witnesses might expect and obtain reduced sentences for taking the witness stand.Spillane said that the Los Angeles district attorney's office, in the wake of a devastating report on jailhouse informants issued in 1990 by the county grand jury, had adopted policies to "strictly control" the use of informants as witnesses. Their use must be approved by a committee headed by Spillane. As a result, fewer than a dozen of the thousands of trials over the last three years featured jailhouse informants, Spillane said.Gordon, one of the chief advocates calling for a grand jury investigation of the problem, on Wednesday said that Los Angeles County has done "a fabulous job" of dealing with the problem since the scandal was revealed.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Broken Bench

This article appeared in the New York Times on September 25, 2006

Broken Bench
In Tiny Courts of N.Y., Abuses of Law and Power

James Estrin/The New York Times
In the Town of Colchester, in the Catskills, court is in the garage.


Some of the courtrooms are not even courtrooms: tiny offices or basement rooms without a judge’s bench or jury box. Sometimes the public is not admitted, witnesses are not sworn to tell the truth, and there is no word-for-word record of the proceedings.

Nearly three-quarters of the judges are not lawyers, and many — truck drivers, sewer workers or laborers — have scant grasp of the most basic legal principles. Some never got through high school, and at least one went no further than grade school.
But serious things happen in these little rooms all over New York State. People have been sent to jail without a guilty plea or a trial, or tossed from their homes without a proper proceeding. In violation of the law, defendants have been refused lawyers, or sentenced to weeks in jail because they cannot pay a fine. Frightened women have been denied protection from abuse.
These are New York’s town and village courts, or justice courts, as the 1,250 of them are widely known. In the public imagination, they are quaint holdovers from a bygone era, handling nothing weightier than traffic tickets and small claims. They get a roll of the eyes from lawyers who amuse one another with tales of incompetent small-town justices.
A woman in Malone, N.Y., was not amused. A mother of four, she went to court in that North Country village seeking an order of protection against her husband, who the police said had choked her, kicked her in the stomach and threatened to kill her. The justice, Donald R. Roberts, a former state trooper with a high school diploma, not only refused, according to state officials, but later told the court clerk, “Every woman needs a good pounding every now and then.”
A black soldier charged in a bar fight near Fort Drum became alarmed when his accuser described him in court as “that colored man.” But the village justice, Charles A. Pennington, a boat hauler and a high school graduate, denied his objections and later convicted him. “You know,” the justice said, “I could understand if he would have called you a Negro, or he had called you a nigger.”
And several people in the small town of Dannemora were intimidated by their longtime justice, Thomas R. Buckley, a phone-company repairman who cursed at defendants and jailed them without bail or a trial, state disciplinary officials found. Feuding with a neighbor over her dog’s running loose, he threatened to jail her and ordered the dog killed.
“I just follow my own common sense,” Mr. Buckley, in an interview, said of his 13 years on the bench. “And the hell with the law.”
The New York Times spent a year examining the life and history of this largely hidden world, a constellation of 1,971 part-time justices, from the suburbs of New York City to the farm towns near Niagara Falls.
It is impossible to say just how many of those justices are ill-informed or abusive. Officially a part of the state court system, yet financed by the towns and villages, the justice courts are essentially unsupervised by either. State court officials know little about the justices, and cannot reliably say how many cases they handle or how many are appealed. Even the agency charged with disciplining them, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, is not equipped to fully police their vast numbers.
But The Times reviewed public documents dating back decades and, unannounced, visited courts in every part of the state. It examined records of closed disciplinary hearings. It tracked down defendants, and interviewed prosecutors and defense lawyers, plaintiffs and bystanders.
The examination found overwhelming evidence that decade after decade and up to this day, people have often been denied fundamental legal rights. Defendants have been jailed illegally. Others have been subjected to racial and sexual bigotry so explicit it seems to come from some other place and time. People have been denied the right to a trial, an impartial judge and the presumption of innocence.
In 2003 alone, justices disciplined by the state included one in Montgomery County who had closed his court to the public and let prosecutors run the proceedings during 20 years in office. Another, in Westchester County, had warned the police not to arrest his political cronies for drunken driving, and asked a Lebanese-American with a parking ticket if she was a terrorist. A third, in Delaware County, had been convicted of having sex with a mentally retarded woman in his care.
This op-ed piece ran in the Patriot News on Sunday, Sempber 24, 2006.
Bill could help put an end to wrongful convictions

Sunday, September 24, 2006


In an important move toward improving the criminal justice system in Pennsylvania, the state Senate in April unanimously passed The Innocence Commission Act .

The legislation (Senate Bill 1069), introduced by Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, with a bipartisan group of co-sponsors, would establish the commission to study the reasons why innocent people are convicted of crimes.

SB 1069 now awaits action in the House Judiciary Committee. Several representatives from south-central Pennsylvania are members of that committee, and I strongly urge them to ensure that the bill finds its way out of the committee and to the full House for a vote.

A wrongful conviction is a nightmare for the innocent person, the crime's victim, and for our society. I should know. I spent 10 years in an Arizona prison for a crime someone else committed. My incarceration included nearly three years on Arizona's death row.
I am a Pennsylvanian who was wrongly convicted in another state, but this problem is not unique to Arizona. Thomas Doswell, Vince Moto, Nicholas Yarris and Barry Laughman are all Pennsylvanians who were wrongly convicted.

Among them, these four men spent nearly 70 years in Pennsylvania prisons, and they were all locked up while they were in their 20s, in their prime, a time when they were trying to establish their personal and working lives.

The Innocence Commission would examine how these tragedies occur. My case included some of the typical problems with the justice system.

When Kim Ancona was killed in 1991, a friend of hers mentioned someone named Ray to investigators, and the police focused on me as their only suspect.

In fact, investigators were so focused on me that they ignored evidence exonerating me, including a footprint from the scene that did not match my size. In addition, I owned no shoes that matched the tread.

Because I trusted the justice system, I did not bother to hire a private attorney and accepted court-appointed counsel. My attorney's resources were woefully inadequate. A bite mark was the one piece of evidence that led to my conviction, but my lawyer could not afford to hire a bite mark expert. He relied on a family dentist as our expert.

For the whole scoop, click here: