innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Friday, February 02, 2007

Lawyer helps solve bank robbery

This article appeared in the Elmira Star-Gazette on January 26, 2007:

Lawyer helps solve bank robbery
Barton credited with helping clear falsely accused client, pointing police to robber.

By Salle E. Richards

Half of the bank robberies that occur in the FBI's Rochester region are solved, and usually quickly. The longer a robbery remains unsolved, the less likely it will ever be, says Mark Thompson, FBI agent assigned to Elmira.

The question of who robbed the Bath National Bank branch, at 351 N. Main St. in Elmira, three years ago was finally answered this week in Chemung County Court.

A state prison inmate serving time for burglary admitted he was the robber and had falsely accused two other men when he testified before the grand jury in 2004. The confession came after Christopher A. Barton, defense attorney for one of the accused men, not only cleared his client but found other evidence that led to solving the robbery.

Wayne K. Skinkle, now 26 and in custody at Upstate Correction Facility in Malone, Franklin County, on a second-degree burglary conviction, pleaded guilty Monday before Chemung County Judge Peter C. Buckley to first-degree perjury. Skinkle said the story he told a grand jury on Feb. 5, 2004, was false.

Two other men, Walter Klumpe of Waverly and Joseph Tocco of Elmira, were indicted for the robbery. Those indictments were later dismissed.

Justice sought

The dismissal of those indictments in 2004 didn't satisfy Klumpe's lawyer, Christopher A. Barton, an Elmira criminal defense attorney.

During his own investigation of the case, Barton not only became convinced Klumpe wasn't guilty, he also became committed to bringing out the truth about a justice system that relies on testimony from accomplices and other "jailhouse informants" to make a case.

What really upset him about the false accusations against Klumpe was that besides Skinkle, another jailhouse informant implicated Klumpe to further his own efforts to plea down a sentence. That inmate is now a fugitive from justice.

Barton said Klumpe had told him that the people who had testified against him in grand jury had lied. When Barton recognized one of the names in the grand jury information as the same jail informant who had testified in another murder case, he knew Klumpe was probably railroaded.

Barton also looked more closely at information about Klumpe's main accuser, Skinkle.

Skinkle was one of the first people questioned by police after the robbery. A suspected burglar and known to police, Skinkle had been seen in the vicinity of the bank the morning of the robbery, Barton said.

Because of his work in different criminal cases, Barton heard "street talk" that Skinkle was really the robber.

A key piece of evidence Barton noticed while studying the case was that a customer in the bank had estimated the robber was a skinny guy no taller that 5 feet 7 inches tall. Klumpe is 6 feet 2 inches and weighed 200 pounds at the time of the robbery.

That was a fact that his mother hadn't missed. His mother, Ann Sherwood of Elmira, said after Klumpe's arrest she knew it wasn't her son in the photo of the robbery suspect taken by the bank camera.

"I'm 6 feet," Sherwood said. "We're all big people. I knew it wasn't him."

Skinkle gave his height as 5 feet 9 inches in court documents, Barton said.

Barton pressed Trice to have FBI reconstruction experts look into the case.

Videotape points to shorter suspect

FBI Agent Mark Thompson remembers the Bath National Bank case well.

"Vividly. We don't have that many bank robberies (in the Rochester region)," Thompson said. He said in the last reported period from Oct. 1, 2005, to Sept. 30, 2006, there were 28 bank robberies in the region, with 14 solved.

The case also sticks in his memory because the district attorney called in FBI experts.

"Our lab did a reverse projection," Thompson said of a procedure that used the tape of the bank's video of the robbery to determine the height of the robber. The video showed a view from above the robber so although a frontal view, the robber's face was completely hidden by the brim of a ball cap pulled down and a scarf wrapped around his face.

The lab determined the robber was 5 feet 8 1/2 inches tall.

"Our job isn't just to win convictions," Trice said of the dismissal of the indictment against Klumpe. "It's to do justice."

Barton continued to assemble clues on who really robbed the bank. He found Skinkle's alibi about filling out a job application at Dollar General the morning of the robbery fit the known facts about the robbery better than his later description implicating Klumpe and Tocco.

Skinkle said he was at Dollar General when a repairman came from Coca-Cola at 9:05 a.m. to right a toppled soda machine. He said he helped right the machine and saw the repairman give the manager of Dollar General a receipt at 9:25 a.m., a sequence of events verified by city police investigators.

The next time the police questioned Skinkle, pressing him harder, he changed his story and said he'd name the robber and testify if he wasn't prosecuted for the robbery. He told police he acted as a lookout.

In his second version, he told police he planned the robbery, with Tocco and Klumpe at Tocco's house a few blocks away from the bank the morning of the robbery. Barton said there was not enough time for both scenarios to be true.

The clues continued to accumulate in Barton's file on the robbery. He learned of a cracked mirror that belonged to Skinkle's girlfriend at a rummage sale and obtained it. On it was Skinkle's signature and a handwritten statement: "Robbing banks for a living."

He learns that Skinkle's instant message sign-on was "BNBRobber."

Trice said the original deal with Skinkle not to prosecute him for the bank robbery was still in effect for local charges, but banks also fall under federal jurisdiction.

Thompson kept the case open and questioned Skinkle again about the Elmira bank robbery.

Negotiations became serious during summer 2006 and Skinkle's lawyer, David B. Rynders, finally agreed to a plea that guaranteed Skinkle wouldn't face federal charges if he cleared the record and told the truth.

After several adjourned appearances, the plea finally came Monday.

Elmira Deputy Police Chief Michael Robertson said Thursday the case is finally closed.

"I think that makes our record 100 percent for solving bank robberies," Robertson said.

Chemung County District Attorney John Trice said Barton deserves a lot of credit for his dogged determination to track down the truth.

"He did his own detective work," Trice said.

Skinkle returns to court March 5 for sentencing on the perjury charge. He faces one to three served concurrently with his burglary sentence and must pay back $2,700 in restitution.

That sentence will be complete March 25, 2008, with Skinkle eligible for conditional release in August.

Innocent ex-inmate resumes college as a free man

This article appeared in the Lower Hudson Journal-News on January 24, 2007:

Innocent ex-inmate from Peekskill resumes college as free man

By Jonathan Bandler

NEW YORK - Jeffrey Deskovic began classes today at Mercy College in Manhattan, resuming a college education that was cut short more than a decade ago while he was serving a prison sentence for a murder he did not commit.

"I'm moving forward with my life and today represents a major step in me doing that," Deskovic, 33, said before entering Prof. Martin Kelly's Classics course. "I want to fully immerse myself in the classes, get the best grades I can and use this education to make the most of my life."

This semester, he is taking two courses at the Manhattan campus and two online courses, and hopes to graduate from Mercy by next spring.

Deskovic went to prison in 1991 after he was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison for murder. He had falsely confessed under exhaustive interrogation by detectives to the November 1989 slaying of 15-year-old Angela Correa, a classmate at Peekskill High School.

He was freed four months ago after DNA evidence linked another New York inmate, Steven Cunningham, to the slaying.

Deskovic got an associate's degree in prison and completed 90 credits towards a bachelor's degree in psychology before state funding dried up for college courses for inmates. He urged legislators to resume funding for such classes, suggesting that ex-convicts were less likely to reoffend once they get out of prison if they have a college degree.

He said this morning that he hoped to go on to law school and that his dream job would be to work for The Innocence Project, the clinic at Benjamin Cardozo Law School that helped free him and has exonerated more than 185 prisoners across the United States. Deskovic is also hoping to become a professional speaker to share his experiences and combat wrongful convictions.

Innocent man goes free

This article appeared in New York's Post-Standard on January 24, 2007:

'Innocent man walking'; Roy Brown goes free

By John Stith
Staff writer

Roy Arthur Brown said when he walked out of Elmira Correctional Facility Tuesday morning, fellow inmates chanted, "innocent man walking."

Fifteen years ago to the day, Brown was convicted of second-degree murder. A jury had decided he had killed Cayuga County social worker Sabina Kulakowski.

Tuesday afternoon, Judge Mark H. Fandrich tossed out the conviction and set aside Brown's sentence of 25 years to life. He was freed without bail and is due back in court March 5 to determine if he should be retried.

However, DNA evidence points to another man, Barry Bench, as the possible killer. Bench was the brother of Kulakowski's ex-boyfriend, Ronald.

"Mr. Brown, I'm sorry it's taken such a long time to come to this day," Fandrich told Brown as he was released from custody. "I'm happy for you and your family."

Brown, 46, didn't say anything in court. In answer to a reporter's question later, he said simply, "Prison was hell."

He always insisted he was innocent and conducted his 15-year battle seeking freedom from prison

personally uncovering affidavits that convinced him Bench was the guilty one. He sent Bench an accusatory letter on Christmas Eve 2003, days before Bench stepped in front of an Amtrak train in Wayne County and killed himself.

District Attorney James B. Vargason had Bench's body exhumed late last month. He wanted a tissue sample to see if it matched DNA found on a T-shirt Kulakowski was wearing the night she was murdered. The DNA samples matched.

Kulakowski's nude, battered body was found May 23, 1991, outside her burning Blanchard Road home. A red T-shirt was found nearby. She had been stabbed, bitten and strangled.

Fingerprint matching techniques need reform

Fingerprint Matching Techniques Need Reform

Fingerprint matches -- key to fighting international terrorism and keeping criminals off the street -- are no longer foolproof, warns a law professor at the University of California, Davis.

Professor Edward Imwinkelried, one of the nation's leading experts on scientific evidence, and co-author Mike Cherry, who designs identification systems, say the reliability of fingerprint identification has declined while the population of the world -- and its fingerprints -- has exploded.

"We can no longer naively assume the reliability of our current fingerprint standards," they write in "How We Can Improve the Reliability of Fingerprint Identification," an article recently published in Judicature. "Given the stakes -- not only justice in a particular case but national security itself -- we must do better."

Imwinkelried, the Edward Barrett Jr. Professor of Law at UC Davis, and Cherry, who is vice chair of the digital technology committee of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, urge reforms.

The current matching process identifies ridges within a fingerprint and categorizes it into one of three general patterns -- including loops, arches and whorls -- and their subpatterns, and maps predetermined shapes and contours. A fingerprint is said to match when the pattern, subpattern and some of the shapes and contours roughly correspond with each other.

Population and digitization

In the late 1800s, Sir Francis Galton developed the first system for classifying and identifying fingerprints. He is quoted as having famously said that the odds of two individual fingerprints being the same are one in 64 billion. The authors point out that the current world population exceeds six billion persons, and most have 10 prints. In short, they say, the world population of fingerprints now exceeds the odds Galton estimated.

At the same time, the authors say, fingerprint matching techniques that once used cards and then analog photographs to compare up to 10 fingerprints have been taken over by automated computerized systems that use less precise digital images and pre-screen matchers that sometimes use only a single index finger.

"If we're going to rely on the computer technology for the Watch List on terrorism, when we do background checks ... we've got to have some assurance the computer system is reliably accurate," said Imwinkelried. He is co-author of "Scientific Evidence," one of the leading treatises in its field that has been cited on several occasions by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Call for new matching criteria

Imwinkelried and Cherry call for high-powered computer analysis of existing fingerprint databases -- data mining -- to detect new patterns and develop new criteria for matching fingerprints. And they urge the return to the Henry Fingerprint Classification System, which used all 10 fingers to classify an individual.

The Henry system, Imwinkelried and Cherry say, would better help identify suspects who use aliases and would prevent criminal suspects like alleged serial killer Jeremy Jones from being re-released after each arrest because just one print is used for matching.

"If analyzed properly, fingerprints can be as accurate as DNA," they say.

In an earlier Judicature article, Cherry and Imwinkelried argue for greater skepticism of the use of computerized fingerprint analysis, especially for its reliance on digitized images of fingerprint patterns. "The bottom-line is that digital images are simple, incomplete approximations of the images they attempt to capture," they write.

The two authors call on courts to take a more skeptical look at fingerprint testimony, recommend that computer systems check as many fingerprints as are available, and advise greater scrutiny of the matching criteria embedded in the programs that match fingerprints.

Source: University of California, Davis

Democrats propose DNA tests

This article appeared in Missouri's Belleville News Democrat on January 22, 2007:

Democrats propose DNA tests after all felony arrests

Chris Blank
Associated Press

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. - House Democrats on Monday proposed expanding the state's DNA database to include people arrested but not yet convicted of felonies and sex crimes.

Rep. John Burnett said testing before convictions would help law enforcement close cases by giving them more to work with sooner. Samples taken from suspects who are not eventually convicted would be removed from the database.

Burnett, D-Kansas City, said any civil liberty concerns are outweighed by the possible good that could come from the additional testing and because DNA evidence can prove innocence as well as guilt.

Burnett said DNA testing is just a scientific way of determining identity, similar to taking finger prints or mug shots.

"You do not have a constitutional right to protect your DNA, to protect your blood, to protect your body fluids," he said.

Missouri has taken DNA samples from those convicted of felonies and sex crimes since 2003. Last year lawmakers approved extending the program until 2013, adding a $60 court fee to drug offenders to pay for the testing on top of the already $30 fee for felons and $15 fee for those convicted of misdemeanors.

A spokesman for the Missouri State Highway Patrol said including felony and sex crime arrests to the DNA testing list would add at least 40,000 tests to the more than 75,000 samples taken last year. A testing kit costs between $30 and $35.

But the bigger problem, Highway Patrol Capt. Tim Hull said, would be keeping track of who already has given a DNA sample so there's no duplication.

Burnett said there has been no cost estimate for the additional testing, but said he doubted it would be unworkable.

"There's always money for something that's a priority," he said.

The proposal came as one of several Democratic crime measures, which included bills to help local police use GPS satellite technology to avoid high-speed chases and to expand the death penalty.

The GPS tracking device would be attached to a fleeing car using a special shooting device, which would allow police to follow the suspect at a safer distance and speed. The Democratic proposal calls for having the state pick up half the cost.

Despite a federal court ruling that has put the state death penalty on ice, Rep. Paul LeVota called for allowing juries to give the death penalty if the victim is a child - even if prosecutors cannot prove there was premeditation.

LeVota, D-Independence, said the "Precious Doe" case - a girl whose body was found in 2001 in Kansas City but not identified until 2005 - illustrated the need for the bill. Police later identified the girl as 3-year-old Erica Green and arrested her stepfather, Harrell Johnson, 25, of Muskogee, Okla., for the murder.

Johnson was initially charged with second-degree murder because prosecutors weren't sure they could prove he had planned the killing. The charges have since been bumped up and prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

LeVota said eliminating the premeditation requirement for child slayings would eliminate any ambiguity.

DNA leads to suspect in '94 rape case

This article appeared in the Massachusetts Republican on January 23, 2007:

DNA leads to suspect in 1994 rape case

By Marla A. Goldberg

SPRINGFIELD - The trail has not grown cold on a rape committed in Springfield more than 12 years ago.

Through DNA matching, a suspect in the Oct. 2, 1994, crime, Aurelio Pinero, 37, of Springfield, was identified and charged, Hampden County District Attorney William M. Bennett announced yesterday.

At a press conference surrounded by several local police chiefs and Massachusetts State Police Crime Laboratory officials, Bennett called for a significant expansion of mandatory DNA collection in Massachusetts. He said use of the state's DNA database led to grand jury indictments against six people on Friday, including Pinero, for previously unsolved crimes.

All 50 states now have laws allowing collection of DNA from convicted criminals, for entry into the Federal Bureau of Investigation's three-tiered Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, which includes local, state and national levels.

"Police chiefs, state police and myself strongly support DNA testing and extension of the CODIS .... (It) identifies the perpetrator, exonerates the innocent and also prevents future crime," Bennett said. "We urge the Legislature to expand the DNA database to include ... all known offenders."

Under Massachusetts law, only people convicted of felonies must provide DNA samples, but Bennett called for broadening the requirement to include those convicted of misdemeanors as well. The commonwealth should also adopt the "California Rule," Bennett said, and collect DNA from everyone arrested on felony charges as soon as possible, "so the truth-finding process is not delayed."

Bennett said crimes go unsolved because perpetrators die first, and DNA should be collected whenever an autopsy is performed, if the deceased is within certain age limits.

William C. Newman, director of the Western Massachusetts office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the group opposes mandatory DNA testing. "There obviously are enormous privacy concerns .... DNA is not like a fingerprint, it exposes and reveals an enormous amount of personal information to the government," without sufficient controls over its dissemination and use, he said.

Newman cited the potential for misuses, if insurance companies demanded genetic health information, or such data were stolen by computer hackers.

Collecting DNA from people convicted of misdemeanors would also overwhelm the state police laboratories and would ultimately make the system break down, Newman said. "The laboratory would never be able to get to the serious cases that need DNA testing .... It would be a massive waste of state money," he said. "There's no reason to believe that such a massive investment of public funds would contribute to public safety."

After yesterday's press conference, state Sen. Stephen J. Buoniconti, D-West Springfield, said that he has refiled a bill which didn't pass last year, to broaden mandatory DNA collection to include youthful offenders who commit serious crimes, and anyone convicted of an offense carrying a potential jail sentence, regardless of the penalty they ultimately receive.

The proposed legislation is "not as expansive," as the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association is seeking, Buoniconti said.

However, it may be redrafted, to require collection of DNA from people convicted of serious misdemeanors, such as assault and battery. Costs might prohibit collection from those convicted of misdemeanor driving offenses, Buoniconti said.

"Anybody who has been in law enforcement knows that people start with nickel and dime crimes," Buoniconti said at the press conference, citing the importance of stopping criminals early in their careers. DNA collection, Buoniconti said, is "not a serious infringement on a human right or human liberty."

Holyoke Police Chief Anthony R. Scott credited the state police crime lab with finding a consistent DNA profile in three separate cases, including a rape in 1988, a home burglary in 2001, and an armed, masked robbery at a convenience store in 2005, where a bandanna yielded genetic material. Bennett's office plans to bring the cases before a grand jury, and seek indictments against the assailant as "John Doe," until he is identified by name. The crime lab is "helping us bring these animals to justice," Scott said.

Similarly, in July, a grand jury indicted a DNA profile as "John Doe," for the 1991 rape of an Agawam woman. Since then, the same profile was found in a West Springfield rape case, and investigators are sharing information in an effort to identify the suspect.

"A key to the future is to expand that database," said Wilbraham Police Chief Allen Stratton yesterday, displaying a cotton swab in a plastic wrapper. "This is a DNA collection kit," he said.

State Police Crime Lab Director Carl M. Selavka said a new crime lab will open early next month on Carando Drive in Springfield, incorporating facilities formerly in Agawam and Sturbridge. The laboratory will employ about 15 people, he said, including state troopers, chemists, and those working in crime scene and firearms identification services.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Md. lawmakers seek to repeal death penalty

Md. lawmakers seek to repeal death penalty
O'Malley says he would sign bill that favors life without parole as alternative

By Brian Witte
The Associated Press
Originally published January 25, 2007, 5:59 PM EST

Lawmakers announced plans today to introduce legislation that would repeal the death penalty in Maryland -- a measure Gov. Martin O'Malley said he would sign if the General Assembly approves it.

State Sen. Lisa Gladden, D-Baltimore, and Delegate Samuel Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, are sponsoring bills that would replace the state's death penalty with a prison sentence of life without parole.

O'Malley, a Democrat who personally opposes the death penalty, said he "sure would" sign a bill repealing the death penalty in favor of life without parole."We waste a lot of money pursuing a policy that doesn't work to reduce crime or to save lives, but we could be putting that money into crime reduction," O'Malley said in a brief interview not long after legislators supporting the measure held a news conference. "I'm much more in favor of life without parole."

Although Gladden and Rosenberg both said they believe support for a repeal has grown, they said they would need to find more votes to get the measure through both chambers.

"While I think that it's a difficult task, I don't think it's impossible," Gladden said.

Kirk Bloodsworth, a Maryland man who spent two years on death row and was later released from prison because of DNA evidence, said at the news conference that he was "living proof that the criminal justice system makes serious mistakes."

Bloodsworth was convicted twice of killing a 9-year-old girl in 1984. He was placed on death row following his first trial. He was convicted again in a second trial, but received a life sentence instead of capital punishment. He was exonerated by DNA evidence in 1993.

Bloodsworth said his experience proved an innocent person can end up on death row.

"If it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody in this room and anybody in the state of Maryland," Bloodsworth said.

Gladden said Bloodworth's case demonstrated a need for ending capital punishment.

"I think that we have standing examples of why it's important that we repeal this," she said. "It doesn't work. The system's broken."

Last month, the state's highest court ruled that executions in Maryland can't go forward until a legislative committee reviews Maryland's lethal injection protocol. The Court of Appeals ruling was made four days after executions were halted in California and Florida over concerns that lethal injections, as carried out, constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

Delegate Anne Healey, who co-chairs the committee that would have to hold hearings on the protocol, said it was up to the governor to decide whether the committee should take up the review. She said she hasn't heard from O'Malley on the matter.

Healey, D-Prince George's, said she's not sure lawmakers want to wade into such a divisive debate this year.

"I think it's a big question mark whether people are interested taking it up this year," said Healey, who opposes the death penalty. Senate Minority Leader David Brinkley, a death penalty supporter who represents parts of Frederick and Carroll counties, said he believes the lethal injection review should be taken up to affirm the use of capital punishment in the state. However, the Republican said he didn't think the committee would bother this session, because lawmakers want to focus on budget issues.

"I think it's going to put it on the back burner," Brinkley said.

Sen. Paul Pinsky, a death penalty opponent who co-chairs the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Review that would have to hold hearings on the state's lethal injection protocol, said it was unclear whether the committee would take up the matter this year.

"Right now, we have a default moratorium, which I think is fine," Pinsky said.

NOPD's crime lab begs for help

This article appeared in the New Orleans City Business on January 22, 2007:

‘Begging for Help’
NOPD’s crime lab faces severe gear shortfall

by Richard A. Webster

New Orleans Police Department Sgt. Jay Vitrano examines crime scene evidence under a microscope. The crime lab staff has been working out of a trailer in a fenced lot off Broad Street.

There’s no silver Humvee or blue pastel mood lighting or models in white lab coats and stilettos playing cops to the soundtrack of The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”

There’s no space-age crime lab equipped with 23rd century technology capable of solving a case in 24 hours. There’s barely a laboratory at all.

Post-Katrina life for the members of the New Orleans Police Department crime lab is nothing like that of their counterparts on the popular CBS television series “CSI.” The depleted staff responsible for collecting and analyzing evidence works out of a trailer in a drab fenced lot off Broad Street.

They lost a permanent facility on Tulane Avenue and floodwaters destroyed more than $5 million in vital forensic equipment, which has yet to be replaced more than 17 months after the storm.

“I personally would not want to be in their shoes,” said Ronald Singer, president of the International Association of Forensic Sciences and a New Orleans native. “They are operating under quite a severe handicap and it’s a marvel they’re doing anything at all.”

To conduct a firearms test, NOPD crime lab investigators travel to St. Tammany Parish. If they want to test narcotics they go to Jefferson Parish. And to develop crime scene film, they have to drive to a lab in Baton Rouge.

The extra travel and wait time slows the investigative process while the city is under siege from murderous drug dealers and the number of open cases mount.

NOPD Capt. Tami Brisset, head of the crime lab, said its staff dropped 59 percent from 90 to 37 after the storm but the caseload has not slowed. They handled 30 cases a week immediately after the hurricane but are back to the pre-storm workload of 150 with a backlog of more than 1,500 narcotics cases now.

“The system is not working as effectively, it’s not as proficient and it’s not at maximum performance. But it’s the best we can do right now,” Brisset said. “It’s hard because we were the best when we had our own 24/7 lab but now we’re begging for help.”

The NOPD is waiting on the Federal Emergency Management Agency to approve funding for a temporary crime lab while costs are determined to build a new facility. Brisset hopes to have a temporary site by Christmas.

Until then the crime lab can’t even buy new equipment because it has no storage space, said Sgt. Becky Benelli who houses excess crime lab equipment in her Algiers home.

The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office allows the NOPD to use its crime lab facilities for up to four hours a day to conduct tests and analyze evidence. Jefferson Parish lab director Milton Dureau said it is all they can afford to offer given the increase in Jefferson Parish homicides. There were a record 66 murders in Jefferson in 2006.

“We can only allow so much time for them to do their work because we have a ton of work ourselves,” Dureau said. “And the time we’re giving them is adversely affecting our output. It’s weighing us down.”

The new year in New Orleans kicked off with six murders in a 24-hour span, which added stress in an already overburdened crime lab. Brisset said she pulled in as many people as possible and asked them to work countless hours of overtime.

“I handled one case where there were 128 pieces of evidence, the majority of them being bullet casings,” Brisset said. “In the olden days when people had revolvers they didn’t have as much evidence but with automatic guns, when they shoot they just don’t shoot once. This isn’t Barney Fife days. When they shoot you can have a trail of casings two blocks long.”

Criminal forensics is far more tedious and time consuming than it is portrayed on television, said Brisset. Investigators spend up to eight hours photographing and collecting evidence at each crime scene. Each piece of evidence is then placed in an envelope, documented and catalogued. Before the storm, the NOPD crime lab had as many as nine investigators on each shift. Now it has five.

“When we had that 24-hour period of shootings, everybody came out and worked it,” Benelli said. “We handled one case at a time and didn’t rush but we just kept hoping we wouldn’t have too many more violent calls. But they kept coming.”

Without its own dedicated lab, the NOPD has to send DNA samples to outside agencies, which can cost up to $20,000 depending on the nature of the sample and results can take more than two months to develop. Transporting evidence to outside locations raises the risk of contamination or the loss of evidence, complications that can threaten a case, Singer said.
“The more you start to fool around with evidence, the more potential you have for something to happen to it,” Singer said.

“When you start out with that as a premise, you have some issues. I would hate to have to be an orphan working at someone else’s lab because eventually your cases start to pile up. But in the case of the NOPD, they really don’t have any other choice. There’s that old saying, ‘There’s no place like home.’”

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Perserverance pays off

This article appeared in Georgia's Macon Telegraph on January 26, 2007:

Perseverance pays off
Midstate law student plays key role in exonerating man convicted of rape, kidnapping

By Phillip Ramati

For Ashley Tyson-Mackin, it started with a gut feeling.

The 24-year-old Jones County native was combing through files last January as part of her internship with the Georgia Innocence Project, looking at dozens of the more than 2,600 letters sent by convicted criminals asking the agency to re-examine their cases.

Tyson-Mackin came across the case of Willie O. "Pete" Williams, convicted of aggravated sodomy, kidnapping and rape in April 1985. That's when she started to believe the Innocence Project had a genuine shot at making a difference.

"The prisoners write in, and there are thousands of files we slowly go through," Tyson-Mackin said. "The best case is when (the crime committed) is stranger-on-stranger and there's mistaken identification involved.

"When I talked with his defense attorney ... Willie was one of the few clients he knew was innocent, and the case really upset him."

Tyson-Mackin, a Georgia State University law student at the time, ended up downloading a picture of Williams and taping it to the door of the project's Atlanta office, telling anyone who would listen that Williams would be the next person exonerated.

"I just had this gut feeling," she recalled. "I knew this was our next exoneree. I just knew it."
Georgia Innocence Project director Aimee Maxwell said she loved the enthusiasm.

"She kept us all enthusiastic," Maxwell said.

But a gut feeling of innocence and being able to prove it in court are two entirely different things.
Williams was convicted almost entirely because of the eyewitness testimony of the victim. The prosecution's case was strengthened when a second woman was able to fight off her attacker five days later and identified the police sketch of the suspect from the first assault as the same attacker.

When the original victim testified at the trial, Tyson-Mackin said the woman told the jury that she was "120 percent" certain her attacker was Williams. Though a rape kit was used during the investigation, DNA testing hadn't yet been developed, which could have been used to prove Williams' guilt or innocence.

Tyson-Mackin needed to find the DNA evidence after nearly 22 years, a monumental task because most evidence from closed cases during that era is usually junked.

"Actually finding the evidence is literally like finding a needle in a haystack," Maxwell said. "It's miraculous, particularly in this case, because the GBI did purge the evidence and sent it back to the original counties. But they had saved some swabs from some rape kits. Nobody knew why they saved those particular swabs, because they end up making slides and usually the first thing they throw out is the swabs."

But even having DNA evidence didn't mean a jackpot for Williams and the project. Because of the high cost of DNA testing, first a judge needed to sign off on it, because the project is a not-for-profit agency with limited resources.

In addition, the sample was one in a long line of other DNA samples awaiting testing at the GBI crime lab.

But finally after more than a year's work on the case, the project got the news it had been waiting for for so long: The DNA test exonerated Williams.

Williams emerged from Fulton County Jail on Tuesday night a free man, greeted by friends and family. Had the Innocence Project been unable to help him, Williams would not have been eligible for parole until 2021. Assuming he had been granted parole at that point, he would have spent almost 36 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit.

Williams became the sixth Georgia prisoner to be exonerated after DNA evidence proved his innocence. He became the Georgia Innocence Project's third success story since it was formed in 2003, Maxwell said.

Williams was at a loss for words when he was first released.

"I can't even explain," he told the Associated Press.

Maxwell credited Tyson-Mackin's work ethic and perseverance as being a big part of the project's success with the case.

"Ashley is a bundle of energy," Maxwell said. "She was Pete's biggest advocate. She just truly believed in him. She did an excellent job investigating the case. She was an exceptional intern, very enthusiastic, very committed."

Tyson-Mackin has never met Williams face to face, but hopes to do so when she attends Williams' hearing, likely in mid-February. Technically, Williams has been released on his own recognizance but must still have his record wiped clean by the court.

The project's work with Williams is far from done. Part of the project's function is to help people reintegrate into society through counseling and help them to find work.

Tyson-Mackin said Williams likely would get sizable compensation for his time in prison, though he could never get back the years he lost. She said the state has compensated other exonerees in the past for wrongful imprisonment.

"We hope he gets taken care of," she said. "I once worked out that if he had made $7.50 an hour during all those years, he'd have had $500,000 in earnings. But how do you compensate someone for those lost opportunities - getting married, having children, having a job, missing Christmases?"

Tyson-Mackin used to go to court with her grandfather, Weyman Roberts, in Jones County when she was as young as 6 or 7. Though Roberts wasn't an attorney, he was fascinated with what was going on in Jones County, and Tyson-Mackin fell in love with the courtroom.

After graduating from Jones County High School, she attended the University of Georgia as an undergraduate student. Having since earned her law degree from Georgia State, Tyson-Mackin got married in September and lives in Macon. She's preparing for the bar exam next month.

She also has seen the courtroom from the opposing side, having worked as an intern with the Houston County District Attorney's Office after finishing her time with the Innocence Project.

Once she passes the bar, she said she is going to work for the Fricks law firm, where she will do real estate law and family law as well as criminal work.

But she acknowledges she may have a hard time topping her work on the Williams case.

"To know you were involved with saving his life, to know that he was going to be (in prison) until at least 2021 - that's really cool," she said. "He's a super nice guy. To help somebody like that is awesome."

To contact Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334 or e-mail

DNA frees man after 21 years

This article appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on January 23, 2007:

DNA frees man after 21 years
Fulton district attorney agrees with Georgia Innocence Project; Willie O. Williams will be released from prison today.

By Bill Torpy
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Willie O. Williams will be released from prison today after serving more than 21 years for a crime he did not commit.

"We are convinced today Mr. Williams is not responsible for this," Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard announced Monday at a brief news conference outside the courthouse in Atlanta.

Deputies will retrieve Williams from the D. Ray James Correctional Facility in South Georgia and drive him five hours to Atlanta, where he will be processed at the Fulton County jail and released on a recognizance bond. Howard said Williams, 44, has been a model prisoner and will be officially cleared within two weeks.

Williams was convicted of raping a woman on April 5, 1985, in Sandy Springs based on eyewitness testimony of the victim and another woman who was attacked five days later.
But DNA tests conducted on behalf of the Georgia Innocence Project indicated last week that Williams did not commit that rape. Howard reviewed the group's data before making Monday's announcement.

Upon hearing the news, Michael Schumaker, Williams' defense attorney from 1985, said: "DNA doesn't lie. What can you say? The system worked."

Schumaker said he was troubled by the case for years.

"Thank God for the Innocence Project," he said. "Thank God for the character of Mr. Williams, who sat there for 21 years knowing he's innocent."

Howard said his office has started an investigation "to find out who committed this crime. We hope to take this person into custody."

Prosecutors on Monday asked GBI Crime Lab technicians to search the lab's vault for a rape swab from a separate attack that occurred in June 1985, according to Ted Staples, manager of forensic biology section at the crime lab.

Prosecutors want to use the swab to get a DNA sample of a convicted rapist who has since been released from prison. They will see if that DNA matches samples collected from the rape kit in the Williams case. That DNA technology was not available at the time of the crimes.

Another man was convicted of a similar rape at a nearby apartment complex that occurred June 17, 1985, when Williams was already in jail. The second man's name was brought up as a suspect in court by Williams' defense attorney 20 years ago, and Georgia Innocence Project officials had asked prosecutors to match samples from the two cases.

In the April 1985 rape that Williams was convicted of, the victim was approached by a man as she tried to get out of her car in a parking lot at an apartment complex on Roswell Road. The man put a gun to her head and ordered her to move over. He then drove to a nearby dead-end street, where he raped and sodomized her. Afterward, he drove her car back to the parking lot and ran away.

The man suspected by the Georgia Innocence Project lived on Roswell Road. In the June 17, 1985, attack, the man sneaked up on the victim in a Roswell Road apartment parking lot, forced open her car door, held a pistol to her, drove her to another area and raped her. After the attack, the man drove her back to her complex and fled. The man pleaded guilty to that attack and was sentenced to four years.

Aimee Maxwell, director of the Georgia Innocence Project, said DNA tests of the June 1985 rape and the Williams case could fairly quickly determine if the other suspect committed the other crime.

Asked if prosecutors were looking at the June 1985 rape sample, Howard nodded yes and said, "We're looking at all the circumstances. It might be one of the circumstances."

On Saturday, Howard said the victim of the April 1985 rape remained convinced Williams was her attacker. He did not address that Monday.

Maxwell said a new suspect can be charged in the Williams case because the statute of limitations on rape is renewed when new evidence comes to light.

Williams was victimized by a confluence of bad circumstances in 1985, including the victim telling a jury that she was certain he was the rapist.

But two decades later, Williams benefited from a different set of circumstances that allowed the evidence to still exist.

In the late 1990s, the crime lab purged evidence, returning some to police agencies, Staples said. But for some reason, the rape swabbings from the 1980s were not returned. Those boxes were later marked to be destroyed, Staples said. But again they were not, and the GBI kept them after a 2003 state law mandated that DNA evidence be kept to free those wrongly accused and to find criminals in unsolved cases.

Maxwell, of the Georgia Innocence Project, stood near Howard's news conference with Cliff Williams, a Georgia State University law school student who did much of the legwork in retrieving the Williams case evidence.

"Holy cow, I didn't expect [Williams' release] this quick," said Maxwell, who said she was going to bring Williams back to her office today and —- among other things —- "introduce him to the world of $4 Starbucks coffee."

She lauded Cliff Williams —- no relation to Willie Williams —- for his dogged work in the case. "Before he ever becomes a lawyer, he's already done the best thing he's ever going to do," she said.

He smiled and said he would be on hand for Willie Williams' release. "I'll miss class tomorrow," he said.

Rapist pleads guilty to molesting 2 girls

This article appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on January 23, 2007:

Rapist pleads guilty to molesting 2 girls

Henry K. Lee
Chronicle Staff Writer

A paroled rapist pleaded guilty Monday in connection with the sexual assaults of two 10-year-old Oakland girls during break-ins at their homes, a prosecutor said.

Kalonji Lee, 31, was identified by DNA evidence in the first attack in January 2004, but Oakland police acknowledged that they didn't follow up on the match until after the second victim was assaulted in December 2004, authorities said.

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Leo Dorado is expected to sentence Lee on April 18 to 50 years to life in prison, said Deputy District Attorney Tim Wellman, who called the attacks "every parent's worst nightmare, let alone the kids' worst nightmare."

"I'm pleased we were able to work out a sentence that will assure the defendant will never be able to terrorize another family again," Wellman said.

On Jan. 3, 2004, a 10-year-old girl awoke to go to the bathroom and was accosted by Lee, who had entered her home through an unlocked bedroom window. He told her, "Don't scream, or I'll kill you," authorities said.

Lee pleaded guilty Monday to performing a lewd act on a child during a residential burglary.

On Dec. 13, 2004, Lee entered another 10-year-old girl's home through an unlocked sliding glass door and assaulted her. The girl's father chased him, but Lee escaped. However, he was later identified through a cell phone that he left at the scene, Wellman said.

On Monday, Lee pleaded guilty to digital penetration during the course of a residential burglary.
The state Department of Justice DNA computer database matched DNA evidence found on the first victim to Lee, court records show. In June 2004, the state informed Oakland police of the "cold hit," the term for the DNA identification of a suspect not otherwise known to be connected to a crime.

But according to court records, the police did not try to look for Lee until after the second assault.

Judge denies prisoner's DNA request

This article appeared in Alabama's Mobile Press-Register on January 5, 2007:

Judge denies prisoner's DNA request

By Brendan Kirby
Staff Reporter

A federal judge in Mobile has ruled that Dewayne Scott Cunningham, convicted of rape 10 years ago, may not have access to evidence that Cunningham insists could prove him innocent through DNA testing.

U.S. District Judge Kristi DuBose decided against Cunningham on each of the half-dozen legal arguments made by his lawyers from the University of Wisconsin Innocence Project.

"I'm obviously disappointed by the decision," attorney Keith Findley said. "It's something we need to pursue further because I think Mr. Cunningham deserves and has a right to have access to DNA testing."

Assistant Alabama Attorney General Clay Crenshaw praised Dubose's decision.

"It looks like the judge wrote a real extensive order that addressed all the plaintiff's arguments," he said.

But she quoted from an opinion written by Chief Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on a DNA case: "Our system however does not allow any person to press a claim of innocence at any time, at any place, and in any manner."

Wilkinson wrote in that case in 2002 of his hope that Congress would act on behalf of inmates who believe DNA testing could prove they were wrongfully convicted.

The court's decision helped prompt passage of the Innocence Protection Act of 2004, which established procedures for federal inmates requesting DNA tests and provided grants to help states pay for post-conviction DNA testing.

Although the Alabama attorney general's office opposed Cunningham's request, Crenshaw said the department does not always oppose such post-conviction DNA testing. He said officials determine two facts: Was the DNA testing available at the time the defendant was convicted, and would the testing be conclusive?

For example, Crenshaw said, the office supported testing for Olin Grimsley, who was convicted of a 1990 murder in Houston County largely on the basis of a cigarette that placed him at the scene of the crime.

DNA tests were conducted on the cigarette, which confirmed that Grimsley had smoked it.
Cunningham now must decide between two unlikely routes -- asking the judge to reconsider her decision or appealing to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Findley said his client will consider both.

"We'll look at all of our options," he said.

Cunningham, 37, has been in prison since 1996, when a judge sentenced him for the 1995 rape of a Flomaton woman.

The Escambia County jury took a couple of hours to find Cunningham guilty of the crime.

The victim, who had just finished jogging around a track in Flomaton's Hurricane Park on Aug. 20, 1995, identified Cunningham as her attacker about 15 minutes later at the police station. She also identified him from the witness stand.

Based on Cunningham's criminal record, the judge sentenced him as a habitual offender to life in prison. Though he remains eligible for parole, Cunningham has said he holds little hope that he will win his freedom that way.

Cunningham, a homeless man with a history of mental problems, said in an interview at Fountain Correctional Center near Atmore last month that he spent his time in those days sneaking onto freight trains across the country.

He insisted he was in the wrong place at the wrong time when a Flomaton police officer approached him.

Police searching the park found a condom wrapper of the same brand Cunningham had in his wallet. A rape examination of the woman also turned up several strands of foreign hair in her pubic area.

Authorities did not conduct DNA tests, which at the time were less sophisticated than they are now.

Cunningham, who challenged inconsistencies between the victim's description of her attacker and his actual appearance, asked for the condom wrapper and the hair samples so that DNA tests could be run.

When state and local officials refused, he filed a federal suit. It was his only option, since Alabama is one of a handful of states with no law providing for post-conviction DNA testing.
The lawsuit claimed that denying Cunningham's request violated his civil and constitutional rights. He made a number of claims that DuBose rejected one by one.

For instance, he claimed that the state impeded his ability to prove his innocence based on newly discovered evidence.

"There is not a viable newly discovered evidence based claim because there is no newly discovered evidence. There is only a hope of newly discovered evidence, which is insufficient to establish actual injury," DuBose wrote in her 26-page order.

DuBose noted that Cunningham's lawyers had argued that they face a Catch-22 because he cannot demonstrate that he has newly discovered evidence until he is given a chance to run the tests. "This is true, but that fact does not provide a basis for this court to ignore the actual injury requirement of a denial of access to court claim," DuBose wrote.

The judge expressed some sympathy for Cunningham's predicament.

"The plaintiff has made numerous meritorious policy arguments in support of his position for this court to require the state to allow him access to the evidence for DNA testing," she wrote.