Friday, December 26, 2008

Deep Thought

According to the 2000 Census, Florida has about 16 million residents. It's about the same size as the Netherlands. Florida currently imprisons more than 100,000 people. The Netherlands imprisons 14,968

Florida must be really safe. Much safer than the Netherlands. 

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Nobody Could Have Predicted

Though they had no data to support their conclusions, for years cops in lab coats testified that they could match a bullet from a crime scene to a box of bullets owned by a criminal defendant. As it turns out, they were wrong.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Judge Overturns Jimmy Ates’ Conviction: Use of Junk Science Leads to Release

Press Release
December 17, 2008

Today, pursuant to an agreement between the State and defense, First Judicial Circuit Judge William Stone vacated the conviction of Jimmy Ates. Mr. Ates will walk out of the Okaloosa County Jail later today after serving ten years in prison for the 1991 murder of his wife, Norma Jean Ates, in Baker, Florida. He is the first person in the nation to have a conviction overturned based on the FBI’s disavowal of Comparative Bullet Lead Analysis (CBLA).

“We’re thrilled that the State is finally recognizing the mistake that it made and taking this first step towards justice for Jimmy Ates,” said Bobbi Madonna, Staff Attorney for the Innocence Project of Florida (IPF).

Jimmy Ates is just one of roughly 1500 individuals nationwide whose cases were tainted by CBLA, which the FBI now concedes is a junk science. An FBI review of about 115 of those cases has found that CBLA testimony compromised the integrity of at least 80 trials—16 in Florida alone.

CBLA is a procedure by which scientists claim to be able to link bullets to a particular batch or box on the basis of their chemical composition. In Ates’ trial, FBI Analyst Kathleen Lundy testified that the bullets retrieved from the victim’s body matched the bullets found in the Ates’ family utility room, and therefore they came from the same batch. This testimony had no scientific basis. “Lundy was a fraud peddling a junk science and without that testimony, Jimmy Ates would never have been convicted,” said David Menschel, Legal Director of IPF. Lundy testified about CBLA in at least six other Florida cases.

The State’s case against Jimmy Ates has been suspect from the beginning. Initially, Okaloosa County State Attorney, Curtis Golden, refused to prosecute because the case lacked sufficient evidence. In a highly unusual move, Gov. Lawton Chiles assigned the high-profile case to Duval County State Attorney Harry Shorstein, who also refused to prosecute. Six years after the murder, armed with the FBI’s new CBLA analysis, a third State Attorney prosecuted Jimmy Ates.

Based on the new evidence that has emerged since trial, William Cervone, the special prosecutor assigned to the case, conceded that Ates’ conviction cannot stand. “Bill Cervone deserves praise for righting this wrong, and we hope and expect that other Florida prosecutors will follow his example in other CBLA cases,” said Seth Miller, Executive Director of IPF.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Florida Most Corrupt of all 50 states, DC and Territories

An article out today in the New York Times asks, 'With all the recent hubbub circulating recently around Illinois Governor Blagojevich's spectacular scandal, is his state really the most corrupt?' Well, it depends which measurement you use, but, in short, no.

By sheer number of convicted public officials at local, state, and federal levels, Florida takes the ignoble cake. Our home state boasts 824 convictions in the last decade. That's one conviction every four days for the last ten years.

(It's no coincidence, probably, that the largest seven states by population are also the seven most corrupt on this metric. When the measure becomes convictions per capita, Florida is ranked 14th, and Washington, D.C. first.)

If only they would survey convictions by county. I wonder where Brevard would rank nationally...

Question for Norm Wolfinger

Dear Norm:

If everyone now agrees that John Preston and his dog were frauds, how were they able to always "correctly" pick out the suspect?

Yankee Interloper

Monday, December 15, 2008

The State Uncharacteristically Admits Wrongdoing in Ates Case

On the heels of Bill Dillon's vacated conviction comes another Florida case about to hopefully see retrial.

Jimmy Ates was convicted in 1998 of killing his wife, Norma Ates. His conviction came seven years after the fact, and after two other prosecutors had refused to take the case because of scant evidence.

Jimmy Ates has been in jail for 10 years. However, on October 31st of this year, the State filed their response to a recent motion by Ates for post-conviction relief. They did something extremely rare, which was to concede two compelling reasons why Ates is entitled to a new trial.

First, the prosecutors at the time relied almost entirely on the analysis of bullet lead found in Ates' home. (The idea being that the bullets that killed his wife matched in elemental composition a batch of bullets that Ates owned, therefore one of his bullets killed his wife, therefore, he killed his wife.) The science behind such analysis has since been abandoned by the FBI, one of its main proponents. Because that testimony, now known to be flawed, was the vital piece of incriminating evidence against Ates, the State agreed that he should receive a new trial. (What the State is left with now is a haphazard patchwork of circumstances that fails to convincingly link Ates to the murder of his wife.)

Magnifying the importance of the metallurgical evidence, then-prosecutor Rod Smith embellished the bullet lead claims until they appeared to be of astounding probative value. In his closing argument, Smith stated,

Of all the millions and billions of bullets that are made by any given company in any given time frame, the bullets that killed Norma Jean were manufactured from the same batch that were found in the box in the back room.

Unfortunately for Smith, the science used at the time has since been discredited, and even the conclusions of the FBI analyst would not have supported a statement as strong as his. Instead, and because of this, his closing argument was misleading and false.

Secondly, the State admitted that a fingerprint lifted from the scene of the crime was not disclosed to the defense during preparations for trial. Even more material to Ates' defense is that the fingerprint did not come from Ates or the victim, or from any of the police officers who could have left their print while investigating the scene, or from two other known suspects.

On top of all this, the FDLE officer who filed the report denied lifting any important prints from the utility room while he was on the stand. We would like to believe that this officer was simply mistaken, that he had not been informed that this particular print came from the utility room, or that he had honestly forgotten since his analysis. Instead, though, we know that the prosecution had tested the print in question against several officers' prints as recently as two weeks before the trial. This leads one to believe that the State did, in fact, know about these prints, and knew they could be a problem for their case. When the FBI analysis came back negative for any matches, they brushed it under the rug.

These both are cogent reasons for Ates to receive a new trial. While the FBI bullet-lead science was contentions at the time, it was widely accepted in courtrooms across the country until recently. We now know it to be bunk. In the case of the mystery fingerprint, it seems to have been purposely concealed by some element of the prosecution. The FDLE officer who took the stand appears to have been either terribly mistaken, or, more likely, lying, when he testified there were no prints of value in the utility room.

While Ates' case represents a sad miscarriage of justice, the miraculous thing about this case is that the State has disclosed its own wrongdoing.

According to an article,

Staff attorney Scott Reagan is reviewing [the State's response]...

Reagan said the prosecutor's request for a new trial is extremely rare and "carries a lot of weight."

Indeed it does, given the adversarial nature of the justice system in which the State in particular is oftentimes most interested in saving face rather than procuring real justice. It's lamentable that this breach of justice occurred in the first place, but refreshing that the State had the moral fortitude to come clean when confronted.

This quote from the end of the State's response is telling:

In the context of the cumulative effect of the errors identified by the defendant, and the circumstantial if not "close" nature of the evidence in this case, no one should be confident in the accuracy of the verdict in this case.

Accordingly, it is the state's belief that the defendant should be granted a new trial. [emphasis added]

We eagerly await the outcome of Ates' hearing on December 17th of this year. Hopefully the State Attorney's office will continue this pattern of behavior, do the right thing, and drop the charges.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Deep Thought

If Bill Dillon had been sentenced to death rather than life in prison, rather than being exonerated right now, he'd just be dead. 

Friday, December 12, 2008

Press Echoes Call for Investigation into Brevard

Florida Today, a newspaper out of Brevard County with a daily circulation of 80,000, echoed our call today for Governor Crist to investigate the systemic corruption in the Brevard County State Attorney's Office and Sheriff's Office. The paper quotes James Russo, the local Public Defender, who is also calling for an inquest:

"I have read the comments of our state attorney and the continued attempt to justify the shameful decision-making in this case," Russo said during an afternoon news conference. "This is a case where lawful evidence never existed in the first place."

Florida Today lists dog handler John Preston's now discredited, but alarmingly prolific, testimony in the County as the main impetus for an investigation. The paper also correctly notes that Preston's chicanery, which came to light in Brevard, stretches beyond the borders of that county to all of Florida. "Preston, proven to be a fraud, testified in hundreds of Florida cases, including three in Brevard County that have been overturned: Dillon, Wilton Dedge and Juan Ramos." (The current State Attorney who is refusing to cooperate with calls for an investigation, Norman Wolfinger, was a former defender who helped to clear Ramos and discredit Preston.)

The Innocence Project of Florida had previously produced this video about John Preston, including footage from a 20/20 exposé that aired in the mid-1980's.

More good reasons to appoint a special prosecutor exist, of course, including "a jailhouse snitch and an investigator who slept with a key witness in the case."

Dillon's case and others like it point to rampant collusion in Brevard County between the Sheriff's Department and John Preston. Gilbert Goshorn, a former Brevard County Judge, designed a test in 1984 to determine whether Preston's dog could do what it purported to do. When it failed the test, Goshorn concluded "that the only way Preston could achieve the results he achieved in numerous other cases was having obtained information about the case prior to the scent-tracking, so that Preston could lead the dog to the suspect or evidence in question." We have every reason to believe a criminal conspiracy exists there, and that innocent people are in jail.

Dillon himself added, "It's not about justice for some people. It's about convictions." Then, tapping a seemingly endless well of empathy, he said, "I feel their pain. I'm not angry. This is compassion, sadness."

Florida Today also ran an editorial today using stronger language and calling for the Governor to investigate. "Prosecutors’ mishandling of the cases along with actions by the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office fol­lows a pattern of possible criminal behavior that can no longer be swept un­der the rug."

Preston had testified in countless other cases in Florida, while we know he was an utter fraud. How many times did his testimony put away an innocent person? Public confidence in the hundreds of other cases in which Preston testified has evaporated. Florida Today conlcudes, "[Governor Crist] must act at once to bring those responsible for this and other such tragedies to justice."

  • Florida Today editorial, "Our views: Probe the corruption"
  • Florida Today article from today, "Defender Demands Probe of Office"

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Brevard County Drops Charges Against William Dillon

For Immediate Release

Today the Brevard County State Attorney’s Office dropped all charges against William Dillon for the 1981 murder of James Dvorak in Canova Beach, Florida. Mr. Dillon served 27 years for a crime he did not commit, equaling the longest time served by any of the 225 DNA exonerees nationwide. Mr. Dillon joins Juan Ramos and Wilton Dedge as the third man exonerated in Brevard County in recent years.

“At least it didn’t take them three years to do the right thing in this case, like it did in the case of Wilton Dedge,” said Seth Miller, Executive Director of the Innocence Project of Florida (IPF). “Now that this charade is over, maybe they can focus on finding the real killer.”

Mr. Dillon, who has always maintained his innocence, was convicted on the basis of unreliable and false evidence including: subsequently recanted testimony of a star witness who was threatened by and having sex with the State's lead investigator; fraudulent scientific testimony of dog handler John Preston; testimony of a jailhouse snitch whose pending rape charge was dismissed after fingering Dillon; and a mistaken eyewitness identification by a man legally blind in one eye.

“Now that they’ve dropped the charges against Bill, they can start filing charges against the real criminals in this case,” said David Menschel, Legal Director of IPF. “There’s an open secret in Brevard County that there was a criminal conspiracy between the Sheriff’s Office and a fraudulent dog handler in order to manufacture convictions against suspects regardless of the evidence. That’s a crime, somebody needs to investigate it, and people need to go to prison.”

IPF called for the Governor to investigate the conduct of Brevard County State Attorney’s Office and Sheriff’s Office last month when Mr. Dillon’s conviction was vacated. Miller reiterated that call today: “It’s hard to have confidence in any of the convictions in this county given how widespread the corruption is. We again urge Governor Crist to not only investigate this corruption, but to review every case where John Preston testified. There are other wrongful convictions out there that need to be uncovered.”

“We’re thrilled that this cloud has been lifted from Bill and his family, just in time for the holidays,” added Melissa Montle, Staff Attorney with IPF.

The Innocence Project of Florida (IPF) is a 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to finding and freeing innocent people in Florida prisons.

# # #

Monday, December 8, 2008

Jacksonville's New PD Slashes Experienced Staff

Jacksonville's newly elected Public Defender, Matt Shirk, is shaking up Duval county by firing 10 of the office's most experienced defense attorneys. The firings are ostensibly brought on by budgetary concerns, as Chief Circuit Judge Donald Moran noted in the Florida Times-Union that Shirk would likely be able to hire two or three young lawyers for the price of each seasoned professional.

But the very real concern is that Shirk might be sacrificing quality for quantity. Many of these public defenders, with over 300 years' combined experience, were "superstars," says the Times-Union. With the talent gone, "the legal community expressed concern about the quality of legal services the office will be able to provide and the appellate cost to the public." In fact, these lawyers are of such a high caliber, says the same paper, that

At first blush, the criterion for recent personnel cuts... appears to be notable success defending criminally accused people who are too poor to hire their own lawyers.

The list of 10 lawyers fired by Shirk - who defeated incumbent Bill White on Nov. 4 - reads like a who's who of the Jacksonville-based office's stars.

The JaxPolitics blog notes that the impending personnel shortage is not local to Florida:

In addition, many Public Defenders Offices throughout the nation are now overloaded with cases and have serious funding issues that must be addressed. Currently, public defenders in 7 states (including Florida) are either refusing to take on new cases or have filed lawsuits due to overburdened case loads which prevent them from providing effective assistance of counsel.

Says the Times-Union, for example "the office had eight lawyers qualified by the state to try death penalty cases; the firings leave three, and two of those are assigned to Clay and Nassau counties." The firings are making a bad situation worse, first by firing the most talented professionals employed by the county, and secondly leaving the remaining lawyers stretched too thin. Add to that that Jacksonville is the murder capital of Florida, and you've got a recipe for chronic inadequacy.

Two of the defenders who are being forced out, Ann Finnell and Patrick McGuinness, were the subjects of the 2001 Oscar-winning HBO documentary Murder on a Sunday Morning, which told how the Jacksonville Police Department had wrongly accused 15-year-old Brenton Butler of a murder and obtained a false confession by beating him senseless during an interrogation.

The Butler episode calls into higher relief the point that the work of experienced defense attorneys may be the only thing that stands in the way of innocent people being convicted. Were it not for the talents of Finnell and McGuiness, Brenton Butler may have been wrongly convicted.

It makes sense that freeing up money would mean letting go of the most experienced defenders in Duval county. But the Times-Union hypothesizes that Shirk's motives might have been in part to weaken the ability of the county to offer competent defense, or even to punish the most pugnacious defenders that the county had on its payroll. "[McGuinness] also blamed Shirk's endorsement by the police union," they report, "noting several of the lawyers let go were among the most aggressive at questioning officers in court."

Shelly Eckles, one of the "Jacksonville 10," notes she was never interviewed by Shirk, and says she was never disciplined during her tenure at the PD's office, leaving no obvious personality or professional reason for the firing. Mark Woods of the Times-Union recently wrote an article on another one of the doomed, Alan Chipperfield. Woods noted, "Some believe it's politics. Shirk has insisted the reason for the change is money. Chipperfield's salary is $134,000. And while that sounds good to most of us, one thing is certain: Chipperfield could have made more in the private sector."

Many of these defenders, like Chipperfield, took pay cuts when they moved from private practice to the PD. Odd, then, that they were summarily fired when they have previously demonstrated that they are willing to make less money if it means doing the right thing and doing it well. If budgetary concerns were Shirk's sole motivation, he could have asked some of them to take a pay cut while maintaining the viability of the Jacksonville PD's office, but the case of Shelly Eckles shows that that was not Shirk's real motive.

The JaxPolitics blog thinks the problem might be more serious than a politicized department. This situation might have implications for Florida's system of electing Public Defenders as a whole, says the author:

Let’s be honest. How many of us regular folks who aren’t involved in the justice system, are willing to support someone in an elected office who will strongly fight for the rights of an accused person? How many of us are willing to put our votes behind spending money to defend murderers and drug dealers? As evidenced by the recent election in Jacksonville, evidently not enough of us. Yet, with an elected Public Defender the integrity of our justice system requires us to do just that if we are to maintain a healthy legal system.

Meanwhile, those who will not be returning to their offices on January 6th have placed pictures of the Black Spot on their office doors, a reference to the mythical pirate code for being doomed to execution, and a gesture of defiance and unity.

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Friday, December 5, 2008

Deep Thought

Since we now know that Bill Dillon did not kill James Dvorak in 1981, that means the actual murderer has been at large for nearly 28 years.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

How Do We Prevent False Confessions?

This is a continuation of yesterday's post on false confessions.

There are numerous techniques police can use while interrogating suspects:
• Utilize the physical environment – usually small but brightly lit
• Ask leading questions
• Provide information about the crime scene
• Adapt a confrontational style / get in the suspect’s face
• Conduct extremely long interviews that last for hours or even days
• Deceive the suspect with false suggestions and/or information, like stories of non-existent physical evidence that links them to the crime
• Tell the suspect if they pass a polygraph they can go home, then lie about the polygraph’s results
• And so it goes...

There are several remedies for false confessions that should be implemented immediately by state law:
• Videotape all interrogations, from the reading of rights to the end, with the tape running continuously
• Set reasonable time limits for interrogations
• Never, ever allow minors and people with reduced mental capacity to be questioned without a parent, guardian, or legal representative present
• Make it illegal for law enforcement to lie to suspects

Some of these are so obvious, I can’t believe they require laws to change them. Why in the world do we allow our children to be taken into some back room and interrogated by the police without our presence? That one’s a no-brainer for me. We need to remember that children are children, regardless of the severity of the crime they’re being questioned about.

In Florida, it’s noteworthy that the Broward County Police Department now records interrogations. We don’t know how many others do so. That’s why the Innocence Project of Florida this year initiated a Public Records Request to all law enforcement agencies in the state, asking for their policies on eyewitness identification and the recording of interrogations. Reviewing the responses should tell us how far we have to go to enact responsible change in these areas.

According to the Innocence Project:

The Supreme Courts of Alaska and Minnesota have declared that, under their state constitutions, defendants are entitled as a matter of due process to have their custodial interrogations recorded. In 2003, Illinois became the first state to require by law that all police interrogations of suspects in homicide cases must be recorded.

Over 500 jurisdictions nationwide, including the states of Alaska, Minnesota and Illinois, regularly record police interrogations. A 2004 study conducted by Illinois officials of 200 locations that implemented this reform found that police departments overwhelmingly embrace the measure as good law enforcement whose time has come.

We can only hope that more states, including Florida, follow suit. Sooner rather than later would be good, too.

*Some of the information in this post was taken from “The False Confessions in the Central Park Jogger Case” written by Elaine Cassel and published on December 17, 2002, at Findlaw.

For more information about false confessions, check out our list of recommended books in the Resource section of our Web site.

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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Footage from Bill Dillon's Release

Just uploaded to YouTube, some footage from Bill Dillon's release, including the press availability and Dillon at home with his family for the first time in 28 years.

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False Confessions: Why Aren't We Taking Steps to Prevent Them?

Last Saturday’s Omaha World-Herald asks:

How could so many people admit in vivid detail to a horrendous crime that they didn't commit?

That was the question after the Central Park 5.

After the Norfolk 4.

And now, the Beatrice 6.

The murder case out of Beatrice, Neb., in which six people were wrongfully convicted in 1989 of the slaying of a 68-year-old woman, is a new national record for the most people exonerated in one case by DNA evidence.

Until this case, the record was held by the Central Park 5. Surely you remember that case: In April of 1989, a white female jogger was reportedly gang-raped by a group of juveniles who, incidentally, were black. Five of the boys (ranging in age from 14 – 16) confessed, were sentenced and served time in prison. Once the boys confessed, it was all over for them. As we mentioned in a previous blog post, “confession acts as the strongest piece of evidence that outweighs any reasonable evidence to the contrary.” Juries often find confessions so compelling, they consider other parts of the trial incidental. It turned out that one Matias Reyes was identified as the rapist through DNA testing, and he confessed to acting alone.

In the case of the Norfolk Four, four young sailors falsely confessed to raping and murdering a young woman in her Norfolk, VA, apartment. “Soon after the trial, the four men recanted and claimed that their admissions were coerced through the threat of the death penalty.” Later DNA testing proved that another man, acting alone, committed the crime. Unfortunately, three of the four remain in prison, serving life sentences without chance for parole. As recently as November 26th, Gov. Kaine has stated that their original confessions are the biggest roadblock to his pardoning them.
But they're asking for a whole series of confessions, and I can't give you the number, but 15 or 20 that were given at different points in time by different people, to all be discarded. That is a huge request.
Perhaps someone should tell Governor Kaine that, according to the Innocence Project, “In approximately 25% of the wrongful convictions overturned with DNA evidence, defendants made false confessions, admissions or statements to law enforcement officials.”

In Florida’s earliest DNA case, Jerry Frank Townsend, who is mentally retarded with the mental capacity of an eight year old, was convicted of six murders and one rape and sentenced to seven concurrent life sentences. In 1979, Townsend was arrested for raping a pregnant woman in Miami, Florida. During the investigation, he confessed to other murders. The confessions were largely the consequence of Townsend wanting to please authority figures, a common adaptive practice by someone with his mental capacities. Police took Townsend to murder scenes and recorded his confessions. Townsend was ultimately cleared by DNA and released on June 15, 2001. He had spent twenty-two years in prison. Read more about Townsend’s case here.

But back to the Beatrice 6. While experts say the case seems to fit patterns of other cases (although not necessarily the Norfolk Four), “young people with low-esteem or mental problems who were abusing alcohol or drugs,” the case had a particularly unsettling addition -- a police psychologist who played a role in the interrogations has previously served as private therapist to some of the defendants. According to the World-Herald, “Saul Kassin, a professor of psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and co-author of Confessions in the Courtroom, and Richard Leo, a law professor at the University of San Francisco said that a psychologist acting in the dual role of trusted therapist and criminal interrogator would have had a powerful place of trust and persuasion over suspects.” Apparently so powerful that only one of the Beatrice 6 defendants refused to confess.

An attorney for one of the six said recently, "I'm fully convinced now that the police, if they wanted to, could get any borderline personality person, who has alcohol and drug issues, and scare them to death and get them to confess to anything."

We know why the police do it. Confessions are, as expert Kassin says, the “gold standard” in criminal trials. But how do they do it? And what can be done to prevent even more false confesstions?

We'll look at some of the answers to these questions in our next post.

*Some of the information in this post was taken from “The False Confessions in the Central Park Jogger Case” written by Elaine Cassel and published on December 17, 2002, at Findlaw.

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Monday, December 1, 2008

The Moral Case for Investigating Brevard County

I've seen a disconcerting sentiment expressed by some of the comments on sites like FloridaToday that have covered the release of William Dillon. A good number of people seem to think that an investigation into the questionable practices of Brevard County would be a waste of taxpayer dollars. I couldn't disagree more.

If money is really their principle concern, these cynics would do well to realize that, depending on the number of people freed by these investigations, it might be cheaper to organize an investigation than it would be to keep those prisoners incarcerated for the rest of their sentences. But that argument has a particularly callous ring to it, and for a good reason.

The real motivation is not money, obviously, but the administration of justice. Why is the government commissioned by the people? I have said previously that Governor Crist is charged with faithfully executing the laws and the Constitution. The presence of innocent people in prison represents a serious miscarriage of justice. Furthermore, when reasonable people have cause to believe in a pattern of widespread injustice, the government has a responsibility to right its wrongs.

Taxpayer money spent on such an endeavor would not be a waste, nor even a luxury: this is the fundamental purpose of government.

When we say things like, "the evidence merits an investigation," there is a missing premise, but it's one most people would agree with. It is that one of the duties of government is not only to administer justice fairly, but to act diligently when a corruption of justice is apparent. That is why we are calling for such an investigation.

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Friday, November 28, 2008

Sucker Bet

The Brevard County state attorneys have decided John Preston's dog sniff evidence is not reliable enough to use at Bill Dillon's retrial. Makes sense. Preston was a fraud.

If Bill Dillon deserves a new trial -- this time without fraudulent evidence -- don't those dozens of other defendants convicted by Preston deserve a new, fraud-free trial too?

Anyone wanna take bets on what the state attorney's office is doing to remedy this injustice?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Activity in the Case of Chad Heins

In December 2007, in the face of DNA evidence pointing to Chad Heins' innocence, the State Attorney's Office in Duval County dropped the murder charge against Chad and set him free after almost 14 years in wrongful incarceration; reuniting him with his family in Wisconsin.

Unfortunately, the State still has the opportunity to retry Chad and it appears that they may still have him in their sights. First Coast News in Jacksonville, FL is reporting that investigators for the State are talking to people who used to work at the Sea turtle Inn, where the victim Tina Heins worked, around the time of her murder. In these discussions, the State is asking these individuals to hand over samples of their DNA for comparison to the DNA found at the crime scene.

Now, there are a number of possible interpretations of these actions, some good others not so good:

1. The Good - The State is finally ready to admit that the semen, hair, and blood/skin cells under the victim's fingernails, which all belong to the same individual, are truly from the perpetrator. If this is the case, then it is clear that the focus of the case has shifted away from Chad Heins as the perpetrator and to some other person, possibly one of the victim's fellow co-workers.

2. The Not So Good - The State does believe that someone other than Chad, possibly one of the victim's co-workers, killed Tina Heins and this person's DNA matches that found at the scene. However, the State wants to invent a conspiracy between this person and Chad to murder the victim; thus being able to again try Chad for murder. Even before the State dropped the charges against Chad, this appeared to be their new angle, so it is one to watch out for.

3. The Bad - The State now believes that the victim was having an affair and the foreign male DNA found on and around her is that of a consensual sexual partner, possibly a hotel co-worker. Of course, there is absolutely no indication that she was having an affair, and this just appears to be another attempt to minimize clealy exculpatory evidence. Considering the State's track record for finding jailhouse snitches to provide erroneous testimony against Chad in his first trial, it would not be stretch to think that when confronted with evidence that their DNA was at the crime scene (and a possible murder charge), a former hotel co-worker would miraculously morph into the victim's on-the-side sexual partner. This would surely be convenient.

Whatever the reason is, let's hope that the State will opt to not retry Chad and find Tina Heins' true killer.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Florida Today Calls for Investigation into Brevard County

On Sunday, the the editorial board of Florida Today called for Governor Crist to look into the actions of the Brevard County District Attorney's office, which reek of misconduct and corruption. They called for:

A state probe ordered by Gov. Charlie Crist into possible repeated miscarriages of justice at the State Attorney’s Office, including in the cases of Dillon and Wilton Dedge, convicted of rape in 1981 but freed in 2004 after DNA evidence proved the Port St. John man’s innocence... And of Juan Ramos, who was tried and sentenced to death for rape and murder in 1983 in Brevard, although no physical evidence linked him to the crime. Ramos was acquitted in 1987.

The editors added: "Prosecutors’ mishandling of the cases follows an ugly pattern of incompetence and impropriety that cries out for investigation." Florida Today correctly observes that there is "overwhelming justification" for a probe. But the evidence goes beyond justification to the creation of an imperative: It would be negligent at this point for the Governor to ignore his duty to the public to make sure that the laws and the Constitution are faithfully enforced.

Today, reasonable people are making the conclusion that Brevard county systemically engages in corruption and collusion. We previously called for an investigation when Dillon was granted a new trial. Governor Crist ought to step up and call for a thorough investigation of those practices that put Dillon and other innocent people behind bars. Justice demands it.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Bill Dillon hugs his father after his release...

Bill Dillon hugs his father after his release.

Dillon's attorney Mike Pirolo.

Innocence Project Executive Director Seth Miller.

Bill Dillon plays for his friends and family the night of his release.

The Innocence Project team with Dillon.

Where's Wayne?

Wayne Holmes was conspicuously absent from Tuesday's hearing. Almost felt bad for ASA Parker. Almost. Sent in to clean up the mess that his colleagues have made. Didn't even seem to have a handle of the facts of the case. 

The Dillon Case: It's all about the Perjury

When most folks think of the Dillon case, they are immediately attracted to John Preston and his Magic Dog, Harrass II. Yes Preston testified in Dedge; he testified in Ramos; and he testified in Dillon. All three are clearly innocent. Of course Preston's dog couldn't have actually tracked an eight year old scent (shout out to IPF intern Kevin for making the astute point that a painted trail would not have survived 8 years in Florida, making it an absurd notion for a scent trail to do so). And yes, the only way for Preston to do these miraculous thngs with such astonishing accuracy was to have been fed the information by law enforcement folks at the Brevard Sheriff's office who knew the case.

But let's put that all aside for now since the State Attorney has unfortunately decided not to embarass themselves and use this testimony against Dillon retrial. The crux of their case is testimony by Donna "the Perjurer" Parrish. I don't ascribe that nickname to her in a figurative sense. Her actions meet the legal definition of perjury and yet the State insists on making her the centerpiece of it's efforts to save their sinking ship of a case against this innocent man.

Donna the Perjurer was Dillon's casual partner in 1981 at the time of the murder in this case. She gave testimony under oath against Dillon at trial indcating, not that he murdered anyone, but rather that she saw him standing over the victim's body after the victim wAs already dead. It just so happens that on her first interview with law enforcement The Perjurer, she was coerced into doing it with the lead investigator and was theeatene with a quarter century of incarceration if she did not implicate Dillon. It's no wonder she was the State's star witness as trial.

Soon after-a mere few weeks-The Perjurer got a conscience and recanted her trial testimony in full and under oath admitting her words at trial were a complete fabrication.

Now the State, trying to preserve a false conviction at all coats. wants to put her up anew and have her essentially recant her recantation. Look we know that she is a liar. But the big deal here is that whichever version of events you believe, both can't be true. This means that Donna knowingly gave false testimony, under oath, at some point. More troubling, however, is the fact that the State would rather put a known perjurer on the stand to revictimize and innocent man than just prosecute Donna the Perjurer and the individuals who knowingly let her perjurer herself. Even more disconcerting is that the Syate appears to be offering her some juice in exchange for her (we think false) testimony still this day.

It's time for the State to give up this charade and drop the charge against Dillon. It is the minimum justice demands.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Dillon Released from Jail, Questions Remain

After spending nearly 28 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit, William Dillon has been granted a new trial set for January 7. He was released on bail yesterday. The state's case against Dillon consisted of a nexus of ridiculous claims, the true absurdity of which have since come to light. Among the state's witness were an admitted perjurer who was threatened by police with jail time if she did not testify against Dillon, a jailhouse snitch whose charge was dropped after he testified, and an eyewitness legally blind in one eye. But the most troubling element of their case was the testimony of John Preston, a disgraced -- but prolific -- dog handler who has been exposed as a charlatan and a fraud since Dillon's trial.

The fact that Preston is an established fraud is one thing that strengthened Dillon's appeal. But it is troubling for two reasons. First of all, Preston was remarkably active on the trial circuit, and he estimated that he had testified in around 300 cases, and not just in Florida.

The second reason that Preston's involvement is troubling is that he had an uncannily "accurate" track record -- in the sense that his testimony always coincided with the state's case. This isn't remarkable, of course, because the state wouldn't call him if he weren't an asset to their efforts. But, as the video demonstrates, Preston's dog is not actually following a scent when he claims it is. Outrageous claims like being able to track a scent six months later through downtown traffic, or being able to smell a weapon through water show Preston to be an absolute quack. (We know in Dillon's case that, despite Preston's testimony that a key piece of physical evidence belonged to Dillon, his DNA was not there--and someone else's DNA was.) The only way that Preston could testify, then, that his dog had led him to the state's suspect in every case is if the state had been funneling him the information all along.

This logical conclusion is one fact among many that lead one to believe in a pattern of corruption and collusion in the Brevard County State Attorney's office. The fact that Preston's dog picked out Dillon and that a key witness admitted to being threatened with jail time if she did not comply indicate a culture of corruption that lead to Dillon's tainted prosecution and eventual conviction. The fact that invaluable physical evidence was lost by the state under suspicious circumstances -- including hairs allegedly from the murderer -- is a curiosity that should not go overlooked. Add to this the fact that a jailhouse snitch had his charges dropped after testifying -- a man who, coddled by Brevard County, had been picked up on more than 25 offenses but never seemed to serve time. Something is clearly rotten in Brevard County.

Indeed, Governor Crist needs to take a hard look at what has been going on there, including especially the cases involving John Preston. William Dillon's case represents a triumph of justice, but who knows how many other innocent people have been jailed because of this fraud.

Monday, April 7, 2008

How to Prevent Wrongful Convictions: Mandatory Recording of Interrogations

We have all seen it before. Someone gets convicted of a crime they say they didn't commit, yet they confessed. The confession acts as the strongest piece of evidence that outweighs any reasonable evidence to the contrary. Then, sometimes years later, 20/20 or Dateline NBC or 60 Minutes profiles the case because the person was released after post-conviction DNA testing conclusively proved that they didn't commit the crime.

The question still remains, however, why did this person confess if they didn't do it? Then these television investigative programs present evidence of long, coercive interrogations which, in many cases, didn't come out at the time of trial. Instructive is the case of Chris Ochoa, who confessed to a rape and murder that he didn't commit, after police told him he would get the death penalty otherwise:

Ochoa and his lawyers insist that his confession and his testimony were a fabrication coerced by police who had given him a Hobson's choice. "He was made to feel that he was doomed one way or the other," says Keith Findley, a lawyer with the Wisconsin Innocence Project who is working on the case. "His doom could either be death or it could be [life in] prison."

But with a life sentence came another ugly reality. The police were convinced that Ochoa and Danziger had committed the crime together, and in exchange for avoiding a death sentence, Ochoa had to take Danziger down with him. "That was part of the plea bargain. He had to testify against [co-defendant] Danziger," Findley said

. . .

But if Ochoa's confession and his testimony at Danziger's trial were all lies, where did he get the facts -- and the story line -- that allowed him to appear completely credible to the judge and jury? . . . Ochoa's lawyers say he got his story line and the key crime scene facts from the police. "There isn't any way [Ochoa] would have known the facts about the case unless they told him the facts about the case," says Bill Allison, an Austin attorney representing Ochoa.

Allison doesn't believe the police necessarily fabricated their case against Ochoa, but that they "violated every rule of taking down a statement that you can violate." Ochoa asked for a lawyer the first day he was interrogated but was denied one on the ground that he hadn't been charged with anything. "The invocation of asking for a lawyer should have stopped the interrogation at that point," says Allison, who claims the police were "feeding him [Ochoa] facts about the case" as they questioned him.

Cases like that of Chris Ochoa are the reason why Florida needs to make it the obligation of every law enforcement agency in the state to record the entirety of every interrogation, from the moment they begin speaking with the suspect until the end of the interrogation, including the confession if there is one. On April 1, 2008, Russell Smith, President of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers authored an op-ed in the St. Petersburg Times on this very issue:

Often, the court's ruling about whether a suspect was given his rights; whether a police officer intimidated him into confessing; or whether the confession ever really occurred amounts to little more than an educated guess. This diminishes the reliability of the criminal justice system, wastes tax dollars, and ties up judges, lawyers and police officers in court.

The Florida Legislature has a unique opportunity to enhance the integrity of the criminal justice system while saving the taxpayers money, by enacting legislation requiring the recording of felony interrogations by law enforcement. House Bill 721 and its companion, Senate Bill 1434, would require just that.

We know that false confessions occur. In 26 percent of cases where DNA later exonerated a wrongfully convicted person, police claimed that person confessed, even though science later proved he could not have committed the crime. Research shows murder cases make up 81 percent of the total number of crimes in which defendants falsely confessed. This doesn't just mean that innocent people are going to prison for murder, it means that murderers are remaining free, because investigations are being closed after the wrong person is arrested.

But this won't just help prevent wrongful convictions, it is squarely a pro-law enforcement measure that prevents real evidence of guilt from being thrown out of court because of false, but successful claims of police misconduct in performing the interrogations. Smith highlights one important instance where video recording would have helped law enforcement immensely:

John Couey's confession in the Jessica Lunsford murder case in Citrus County was thrown out of court because the judge decided that he may have asked for a lawyer during questioning, something the police swore he never did. Had that interrogation been recorded, the judge wouldn't have had to guess who was right. He would have been able to review an actual recording of the interrogation.

With mandatory recording of interrogations, most suspects' claims of improper police conduct disappear. The courts have to conduct fewer suppression hearings, and those few remaining hearings are shorter. When criminal defendants are confronted with a recording of their confession, more of them plead guilty rather than insisting on jury trials. The FBI recommends felony interrogations be recorded, saying that electronic recordings "help enhance an officer's credibility" and "increase public confidence in police practices."

More than 11 states and 5,000 local jurisdictions require interrogations to be recorded, and prosecutors and police in those jurisdictions believe that the recordings are an asset to their cases. Not one jurisdiction that has adopted mandatory recording of felony interrogations has ever repealed the legislation.

Although it does not appear that House Bill 721 and its companion, Senate Bill 1434 are going to pass this year, we must pass these important measures to inject a dose of reliability into our criminal justice process.

Visit IPF's Website here; sign up to volunteer here; contribute to our work here.

2008 Innocence Network Conference - San Jose, CA

Pictured: (from right to left) Florida Exonerees Alan Crotzer, Wilton Dedge, Larry Bostic, Chad Heins, IPF Executive Director Seth Miller, IPF Board Chair Mark Schlakman (second row); at 2008 Innocence Network Conference, March 29, 2008, San Jose CA

Last weekend (March 28-30), I traveled to San Jose, California to attend the 2008 meeting of the International Innocence Network at Santa Clara University. The Innocence Network is a consortium of organizations from North America and abroad that focus their work on freeing innocence individuals from prison. Not only did I have the privilege of meeting people from all over America, Canada, England, Australia, and New Zealand who are doing the same work as IPF, but I had the honor of meeting many of the over 70 exonerees in attendance.

For staff at innocence projects, the conference offered various programs and panels designed to flesh out issues different projects are having related to litigation, policy, and project management. Exonerees also were able to attend programs on managing money, coping skills, anger management, and leadership in the Innocence Movement. I was very lucky to have attended the conference with a number of Florida exonerees (pictured above).

I wanted to extend a personal thank you to all the folks at Santa Clara University and the Northern California Innocence Project for putting on one hell of an event; to the folks at The Innocence Project in New York for showing me and Florida's exonerees a good time, and all of the exonerees in attendance for their continued strength and courage.

Visit IPF's Website here; sign up to volunteer here; contribute to our work here.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Exoneree Alan Crotzer: One Step Closer to Being Compensated

Yesterday, the Florida Senate passed an individual claims bill that would pay 2006 DNA exoneree Alan Crotzer $1.25 million for his 24.5 years of wrongful incarceration. Last week, the Florida House of Representatives passed an identical measure.

The only thing now standing between Alan and compensation is the signature of Governor Crist and the speed in which the folks over at the Department of Financial Services can cut the check. Governor Crist has indicated publicly that he will sign the bill as soon as it gets to his desk.

This is a momentous day for Alan, his family and advocates, as well as the people of Florida. Alan will now be the second Florida DNA exoneree to be compensated (2004 exoneree Wilton Dedge was compensated in December 2005 after spending 22 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit).

You can view the claims bill here.

Visit IPF's Website here; sign up to volunteer here; contribute to our work here.

And We're Back....

It has been a month since our last post and that time off corresponds directly with the beginning of the legislative session here in Florida. We have been working diligently on getting a reasonable exoneree compensation bill passed and I will have an update on that process in a later post.

For now, use this as an open thread.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

If 1 in 100 American adults are in prison, how many are innocent?

The United States has passed a milestone with, apparently, very little fanfare. We now incarcerate more than 1 in 100 adults in this country -- 1 in 99.1 to be exact. Let's repeat that. 1 in 99.1 American adults are currently in prison or jail.

The numbers were released last week in a report by The Public Safety Performance Project:

Launched in 2006 as an operating project of the Pew Center on the States, the Public Safety Performance Project helps states advance fiscally sound, data-driven sentencing and corrections policies and practices that protect public safety, hold offenders accountable and control costs. The Project currently collaborates with the Pew Center on the States and five external partners to provide expert, nonpartisan information and assistance to 13 states that want a better return on their public safety investments.
Why isn't the media all over this report? Yes, there have been the obligatory stories on the data, but that flurry of attention was over in a day or two. Am I the only one who thinks this is one of the scariest pieces of news to hit the media (albeit briefly) in a long time? The United States, "land of the free, and the home of the brave," incarcerates a much higher percentage of our population than any other country in the world.

The sheer numbers alone are staggering:
At the start of the new year, the American penal system held more than 2.3 million adults. China was second, with 1.5 million people behind bars, and Russia was a distant third with 890,000 inmates, according to the latest available figures.
When you break the numbers down into demographics, they look even worse (if possible). While "one in 30 men between the ages of 20 and 34 is behind bars, the figure is one in nine for black males in that age group... In addition, one in every 53 adults in their 20s is behind bars...."

This "lock 'em up" mentality doesn't come cheap. We're currently spending about $55 billion a year to house the 2.3 million people currently behind bars in this country. And ironically, it's not necessarily making us any safer.
"For all the money spent on corrections today, there hasn’t been a clear and convincing return for public safety,” said Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project. “More and more states are beginning to rethink their reliance on prisons for lower-level offenders and finding strategies that are tough on crime without being so tough on taxpayers.”
One can only hope that "more and more states are beginning to rethink their reliance on prisons." You don't get that sense from the report's numbers, however. Thirty-six states and the federal government saw an increase in their prison populations in 2007, including Florida, whose incarcerated population grew by more than 4,000 inmates. According to the state's Department of Corrections web site, "On June 30, 2007, 493 of every 100,000 Floridians were incarcerated compared to 453 in 2003." (That figure is for prisons only, and does not include those behind bars in local jails around the state.)

Florida currently spends 9.3% of its general fund on the state's correctional system. Image credit: Florida Dept. of HealthOnly three other states' percentages are that high or more. To put these numbers in perspective, consider this: for every dollar Florida spent on higher education in 2007, the state spent $.66 on corrections. Contrast that figure with 1987, when the ratio was $.34 per $1.00.
Between 1993 and 2007, the state’s inmate population has increased from 53,000 to over 97,000. While crime and a growing resident population play a role, most of the growth, analysts agree, stemmed from a host of correctional policies and practices adopted by the state.

One of the first came in 1995, when the legislature abolished “good time” credits and discretionary release by the parole board, and required that all prisoners—regardless of their crime, prior record, or risk to recidivate—serve 85 percent of their sentence. Next came a “zero tolerance” policy and other measures mandating that probation officers report every offender who violated any condition of supervision and increasing prison time for these “technical violations.” As a result, the number of violators in Florida prisons has jumped by an estimated 12,000.

Crime in Florida has dropped substantially during this period, but it has fallen as much or more in some states that have not grown their prison systems, or even have shrunk them, such as New York. Without a change of direction, Florida is expected to reach a peak of nearly 125,000 inmates by 2013. Based on that projection, the state will run out of prison capacity by early 2009 and will need to add another 16,500 beds to keep pace.
So what does all of this have to do with the Innocence Project of Florida? Well the first thing I thought of is how many of these incarcerated people are innocent?

If Florida currently houses over 97,000 inmates, then we have to assume that, at the very least (one percent), 970 of them are innocent. On the high end (an estimated ten percent), that number jumps to 9,700. Since 2000, Florida has released just nine innocent people due to DNA testing.

One thing this work has taught me is that there is a critical need to investigate claims of innocence in this state, indeed in this country. I'm well aware that a lot of people will be quick to say, "Oh, yeah, everybody in prison is innocent," but the hard truth is that there are innocent people in prison and a very real need for more people working to do something about it. According to Samuel R. Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan:
The good news is that the great majority of convicted defendants in the United States are guilty; the bad news is that a substantial number are not. Is an error rate of 2% or 3% or 5% high or low? That depends on your point of view and your purpose.

If 1% of commercial airliners crashed on takeoff, we'd shut down every airline in the country. That would be nearly 300 crashes a day. If as few as 1% of criminal convictions are erroneous, right now there are more than 20,000 innocent defendants behind bars.
Another thing I've learned is that wrongful incarceration is still not on everyone's radar. Innocence projects haven't been around long enough to lay claim to a colored ribbon to increase awareness of our cause, like breast cancer's pink one or the Heart Association's red. And criminal justice issues, like prison reform and innocence projects, don't generate the same warm, fuzzy response as a homeless child or an abused puppy, but that doesn't make the work any less important. We communicate daily with real people, perhaps someone's teacher, or neighbor, or son or brother, whose lives, and the lives of their families, have been devastated by a wrongful conviction and its resulting incarceration. The damage can endure for generations.

Unfortunately, Florida does not yet have statewide remedies in place, changes to "the old way of doing things" that have proven to be effective in protecting innocent citizens from falling victim to the horrors of wrongful incarceration. I remain hopeful that the situation will change as more people become aware of this nightmare that can truly happen to anyone.

Florida, like most of the country, has its work cut out for it as it seeks to right some of the wrongs within its criminal justice system. Protecting innocent Floridians from wrongful imprisonment should be high on that list.

Link to the complete report.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Police Already Screwing Up DNA Dragnet in Daytona Beach

Last Friday, we noted that a debate is brewing over the propriety of trying to resolve cases using DNA dragnets or sweeps; that is, taking a DNA sample via cheek swab from every arrestee and then comparing these to the unknown sample int he unsolved case.

The giving of the sample is supposed to be voluntary, as the current law in Florida only allows for mandatory samples from those convicted. "Supposed to be voluntary" is the operative phrase:

In a training video by the Police Department on how to swab suspects' mouths for DNA samples, the training officer describes how to do the procedure and asks the suspect to sign a consent form only after the swab. That's not legal. The suspect must give consent first, otherwise the swab violates the suspect's rights.

The training officer in the video committed another blunder. "If the subject refuses the form," he says, "note on the form that they've refused, go ahead and tag the evidence anyway." There ought to have been no evidence to start with if the subject refused to sign the form. After The News-Journal reported the training video's errors, Daytona Beach police Chief Mike Chitwood conceded that those aspects of the video were a mistake.

What if there'd been no news report?
And there within this closing question lies the point, as well intentioned as law enforcement may be in trying to solve a pending case, they simply can't be trusted to be guardians of constitutional rights of innocence individuals. But aside from the costs to the rights of the citizenry, what about the actual financial costs:

The dragnet raises more troubling questions than it answers. At $200 to $500 for each DNA test, who'll foot the bill in a period of budget reductions across the state? (Daytona Beach arrested 11,000 people last year. Assuming that half had consented to DNA swabs, that's $1.1 million to $2.75 million in DNA tests.)

For financial and constitutional reasons, it is imperative that law enforcement is properly trained to narrow the range of people that find themselves in this DNA net by allowing for consent before the taking of the sample and destroying the sample when the person is determined not to be the unknown perpetrator.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Un Bell Nulla (A Beautiful Nothing)

As we noted last week, Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff (R), who represents an overlapping portion of both Broward and Palm Beach Counties, filed HB 1025, The Victims of Wrongful Compensation Act.

When I started reading the bill, I started to get a bit giddy because of the comprehensive nature of the services provided by this plan.
HB 1025 goes further than the previous bills to offer a standard amount of money ($50,000) per year of wrongful incarceration, 120 hours of tuition at a state college or university, a process for expunging of criminal records as it relates to the wrongful conviction, and reimbursements for psychological services and health insurance premiums. It is far more extensive than previous attempts since 2005 which limited exoneree compensation to a standard amount of money ($50,000) per year of wrongful incarceration, 120 hours of tuition at a state college or university, and a formal apology (although SB 756, filed this year by Sen. Arthenia Joyner (D) and which is principally support by the Innocence Project of Florida, includes payment of $100,000 for every year of wrongful incarceration).

My giddiness turned to exasperation when I read the rest of the HB 1025. It became clear that while this bill would provide much, none of the array of services available could be obtained by any of Florida's nine DNA exonerees, because they are all excluded under the plain language of the bill.

You read that right: The House Republican leadership has put forward a compensation bill that would not compensate any known Florida DNA exonerees!

So how does it exclude these deserving individuals? The principle exclusion in the bill is a so-called "clean hands" provision, which excludes from compensation anyone with a felony conviction prior to their wrongful conviction. This is their reasoning:

Republican leaders in both chambers say they want the bill to prevent released prisoners with prior felony convictions from being entitled to the automatic compensation. That means people like Crotzer, who was previously convicted in 1981 for stealing a case of beer, wouldn't qualify for automatic compensation under the proposed legislation and would still have to petition the Legislature.

"There doesn't appear to be a huge appetite from the public to give money to folks who have a rap sheet," Bogdanoff said. "It's not going to help everybody, but it's geared toward those people whom the public is most offended by government's wrongful action."

Yet, they go on to say that they are going to compensate Al Crotzer through a separate vehicle, despite his previous felony for stealing beer from a store. Al is totally deserving and has put in the hard work to win over legislators. But their protests about not wanting to pay people with a rap sheet ring hollow when they are willing to pay those with a rap sheet who they get to know and deem to be a "good" person. Let us not forget that it was only a year ago that two committees in the Senate and one committee in the House were not concerned about clean hands when they voted unanimously to pass a similar bill with no clean hands provision at all. I guess they were for a fair and equal method for compensating exonerees before they were against it. (Note: In response to the concerns about paying multi-time felons who later get wrongfully convicted for a separate offense, IPF took the initiative and crafted the narrower clean hands provision that exists in SB 756).

Nevermind the fact that in 75% of cases nationwide where DNA later proved innocence, a witness misidentification contributed to the wrongful conviction. You can probably guess how law enforcement had those individuals' pictures or knew their identities to stick them in a live lineup to be misidentified; because they had a previous conviction.

What is most pernicious about this provision is that it implies that exonerees, who have spent decades in prison for someone else's crime and have fought like hell in horrible conditions to prove their innocence when no one would listen, are somehow at fault for their wrongful conviction and incarceration. This clean hands provision is nothing more than a good old fashion immunity clause. It allows the State of Florida to wrongfully convict people with impunity; with virtually no consequences for its actions.

Even worse is the fact that the stated purpose of the bill is:

House and Senate leaders agree they want . . . an automatic process that would make it easier for those who have been wrongly convicted to collect some compensation, without petitioning the Legislature year after year.

This sounds like a great idea, but how does creating a uniform, automatic system that pays no one fulfill this stated purpose? How does it meet the stated end if we simply kick everyone back over to the annual claims bill process, which lacks in uniformity or fairness among exonerees and which favors those who can obtain good counsel? These are questions that the proponents of this clean hands provision should be made to answer.

The struggle for an exoneree compensation bill is in its fourth year. The legislature knows it has to pass something this year in light of its failure to pay Al Crotzer two years running on the backdrop of the speed in which it paid Wilton Dedge in 2005. But instead of showing leadership in crafting a bill that demonstrates fairness and compassion for all exonerees and responsibility for wrongful convictions, all we get is a cynical attempt to gain the political capital that comes along with passing a compensation bill while merely creating an illusory scheme that pays no one.

Call it the height of cynicism or smoke and mirrors or even bait and switch. Whatever you call it, it is a disappointment and a failure on the part of the State of Florida. It is our hope that when the Senate files their bill this week, it will be substantially better and that the leadership of both houses will be a willing partner with the Innocence Project of Florida to do better for Florida's exonerees.

New Trial Granted in Tampa Non-DNA Innocence Case

This past Friday, the Second District Court of Appeal overturned the conviction of Michael Mordenti for a 1989 contract murder. The St. Petersburg Times has the goods:

Before he committed suicide, Larry Royston told his attorney that prosecutors had charged the wrong man with killing Royston's wife in a 1989 murder-for-hire plot.

But three separate juries never heard his claim.

Twice, St. Petersburg used car dealer Michael Mordenti was convicted of taking $17,000 from Royston to carry out the hit.

The Florida Supreme Court overturned the first conviction, saving Mordenti from death row. A second trial ended with a hung jury, and a third trial brought a life prison sentence with the possibility of parole after 25 years.

On Friday, the testimony jurors never heard won Mordenti his fourth shot at redemption.

In a 2-1 decision, an appellate panel overturned his conviction, saying Royston's statements to attorney John Trevena should have been admitted at trial and would exonerate Mordenti if believed by a jury.

This is a huge turn of events in a case that has gotten a lot of attention over the last twenty years while it wound its way through the court system.

IPF generally doesn't do non-DNA cases; those which do not involve biological evidence that can be tested for DNA. These cases generally involve witness recantations, the non-disclosure of exculpatory evidence by the prosecution, and other non-DNA-related newly discovered evidence claims. While it is our wish to move into this area, we have our hands full with DNA cases and the money is just not there to perform the intense investigation that is necessary to represent an inmate in a non-DNA innocence case.

Kudos to Marty McClain, who is representing Mr. Mordenti. Mr. Mordenti is now 66 years old and has been in prison since his first conviction in 1991. We'll keep you updated as the events of the newest trial unfold.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Cheap and Easy Fixes to Witness Lineups

The Daytona Beach News Journal strikes again with a great editorial on injecting greater reliability into witness identification procedures, specifically live witness lineups:

One of the easiest, and potentially most effective, fixes involves a simple tweak to a basic police tool: the lineup. This practice -- in which police actually line up a row of people, or display a set of photographs and ask a witness to identify one as the criminal -- is subject to flaws, particularly when the officer administering the lineup knows who the suspect is. Even though the officer might not intend to taint witness identification, it happens, through subtle "tells" such as fleeting changes of facial expression.

The solution is to remove that officer from the lineup process, substituting another officer -- one who has never seen the suspect and doesn't know who the ringers are. This procedure, called a "double-blind" lineup, is the best way to ensure that eyewitness IDs are as accurate as possible. In addition, police should take care to ensure that all subjects in a lineup are as physically similar as possible.

These two fixes are simple. They require no new technology and, because they simply substitute one officer for another, little extra police time. Moreover, they're fully supported by irrefutable research. (Research behind a third reform, which would change the way lineups are administered so that a witness considers only one suspect or photograph at a time, shows conflicts and needs further work).

Witness misidentification contributed to roughly 75% of the 213 wrongful convictions nationwide that were later overturned through the use of DNA testing. While the need for reform is great and the fixes not too difficult, it is very unfortunate that there is still a strong push back by law enforcement.

Chad Heins: 45 Degrees Below and Happy to Free

The Florida Times Union ran an article on adjustment of Chad Heins to home life in Nekoosa, Wisconsin after his long-sought exoneration out of Jacksonville, Florida in December 2007:

But for Chad Heins, everything changed. Like a modern-day Rip Van Winkle, he returned to a strange new world of cell phones, e-mails and DVDs. Even the multiple buttons on his parents' TV remote control baffle him.

His relationship with his brother, once close, is shattered, perhaps beyond repair. He's learning how to be a dad to two teenagers without the benefit of watching them grow up. A simple trip to Wal-Mart is an adventure.

"You don't walk that close to people in prison," he says.. . .

But for now, Heins chooses to bask in being there, rather than obsess over the lost years or how the story might end.

. . .

"You don't realize how good it is to be home until you get it all snatched away," he told the Times-Union as he relaxed at the dining room table noshing on brats and cheese curds.

Chad seems to be adjusting well and is enjoying his family. What is most disconcerting is how his case is seemingly becoming a political football in the upcoming State Attorney race back in Jacksonville, Florida:

But Heins also admits to some concern about what will happen to the case if Angela Corey, one of the prosecutors in his case, is successful in her bid to replace Shorstein this year.

"I don't know what I done to her, but she hates me," he said.

Corey said his fears are well-founded. If elected, she said she will review the evidence to see what's changed since she left the State Attorney's Office in 2006, but she would re-charge him with the evidence that exists now. She reasons that jurors knew about unidentified hairs from another man on Tina's body, and they convicted Heins anyway.

Her opponent, Chief Assistant State Attorney Jay Plotkin, said although the case remains open and Heins is a suspect, "people deserve better than prosecution by politics." He said arguments Corey made to jurors in 1996 about stray hair being transferred from a used mattress couldn't be made now in light of the additional DNA evidence.
Some people just never learn. This is the first instance I have ever seen of someone using the retrial of a completely innocent and already exonerated individual as a campaign slogan. Especially in light of the fact that there is semen on the victim's bed, blood from her fingernail scrapings, and pubic hair found on her body that all match the same unknown male perpetrator. Instead of using Chad Heins as a political pawn, they should be concentrating on finding this still unknown murderer.