Thursday, February 28, 2008

DNA Exonerates Wrongly Convicted Man

Rape Charge Thrown Out Agains Wrongly Convicted Dallas Man

February 28, 2008

Associated Press

DALLAS (AP) - A Dallas man who spent 27 years in prison for a rape he didn't commit saw the aggravated rape charge against him officially dismissed.

Charles Chatman says "it's just a relief" to not have the charge hanging over his head after yesterday's dismissal.

The 47-year-old Chatman won his freedom January 3rd after new DNA testing excluded him as the rapist in a 1981 sexual assault. He is the 15th inmate from Dallas County since 2001 to be freed by DNAtesting. He served more time than any of the others.

The Innocence Project says Dallas County has freed more inmates after DNA testing than any other county nationwide. The New York-based legal center that specializes in overturning wrongful convictions says Texas leads the country in prisoners freed by DNAtesting, with at least 30 since 2001.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Court Denies Request For DNA Testing In 1993 Homicide Case

February 27, 2008

WKBT TV- La Crosse, WI

A court has denied a man's request for DNA testing that he says could prove his innocence in the death of a teenage girl.

Mark Rea was convicted of being party to first-degree intentional homicide and second-degree sexual assault in the 1993 death of Charlene Dvorak.

Prosecutors say Rea and David Newbury beat and sexually assaulted Dvorak. All three were high school students.

Rea and Newbury blamed each other and were both convicted.

The Wisconsin Innocence Project is seeking DNA testing on items collected from the scene and the hospital where Dvorak was treated to exonerate Rea.

But the Court of Appeals says the testing could not prove his innocence given the other evidence presented at trial.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Innocent Man Goes Home for First Time Since 1993

February 25, 2008

by Ronni Mott

Jackson Free Press-Jackson, Mississippi

INDIANOLA—Arthur Johnson, 48, who was wrongfully convicted in 1993 of rape, went home with his family today for the first time in a decade and a half. Sunflower County Circuit Judge Ashley Hines of Sunflower County still levied $25,000 in bail, even though DNA testing carried out in 2007 proves Johnson did not commit the crime. Johnson has already served 15 years of the 55-year rape and burglary sentence at Parchman, however.

Emily Maw, director of the Innocence Project’s New Orleans office and Johnson’s attorney, attempted to get Johnson’s bail lowered so that his family could afford to pay it. A $25,000 bail, coupled with DNA evidence proving his innocence, amounted to an “effective denial of bail,” Maw said. Hines, who seemed to pay little to no attention to Maw’s pleas, was unmoved, never looking at her while she was speaking.

Ole Miss law professor George Cochran, a board member of the Innocence Project, posted the $2,500 cash bond allowing Johnson to go home to his family instead of spending another night behind bars. Maw negotiated with the court behind closed doors to ensure Johnson’s release.

Sunflower County will retry Johnson in July. Although District Attorney Dewayne Richardson would not comment on what other evidence he might present at that time, the likelihood is that the victim’s identification will come into play.

Mistaken eye-witness testimony has been a factor in 77 percent of exonerations handled nationwide by the Innocence Project. No physical evidence linked Johnson to the crime for which he was convicted, and he had no prior violent criminal history.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Group Seeks Reform Of DNA Testing Program For Ohio Inmates

February 25, 2008

WDTN-TV- Dayton, Ohio

A group seeking to fix problems in Ohio's DNA testing program says lawmakers should establish statewide standards for preserving crime-scene evidence and put police crime labs under greater oversight.

A proposal submitted to Governor Strickland last week by the Ohio Innocence Project and other activists includes 42 recommendations. The group lobbies on behalf of inmates claiming they are innocent.

The plan is a response to a Columbus Dispatch investigation in January that found police and courts routinely discard evidence after trials, and prosecutors and judges often dismiss inmate applications for DNA testing without a stated reason.

Strickland also has called for an overhaul that would speed up the review process and open up testing to more inmates.

Texas, Maryland, Minnesota, Oklahoma and Virginia are among the states that have outside oversight of government crime labs or require professional accreditation.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Possible Wrongful Conviction Appeals To Be Fast-Tracked

February 22, 2008

St. Catherine’s Standard-Ontario, Canada

The province is prepared to tackle possible wrongful convictions caused by disgraced pathologist Dr. Charles Smith by paving the way for cases to be appealed, says a senior official from the Attorney General's ministry.

Mary Nethery, director of the criminal law policy branch of the Ministry of the Attorney General, told a public inquiry on Thursday that there's a willingness to fast-track a process to determine whether extensions of deadlines to file appeals can be granted.

Normally, an individual has 30 days following a conviction to appeal.

But that window of opportunity has long since passed for up to eight individuals convicted of killing children, largely on the strength of Smith's evidence.

These parents and caregivers were convicted for the deaths of children between 1992 and 2002.

"We would be willing to set up an expedited process for dealing with the extension of time to appeal," she told the Inquiry into Pediatric Forensic Pathology in Ontario.

Nethery said she would rather see time and energy devoted to the appeals themselves rather than on the process of getting there.

"I do understand there can be some significant time and energy spent on the issue of just extending the time to appeal before you get to the heart of the matter, so we would certainly work with defence bar and the Ontario Court of Appeal to set up that kind of a process," she told a policy roundtable on potential wrongful convictions at the inquiry.

Five internationally renowned forensic pathologists reviewed Smith's cases and found that he erred in 20.

This resulted in individuals being suspected, charged, convicted or otherwise implicated in the deaths of children.

These highly regarded pathologists also testified that the science has evolved and changed when it comes to assessing brain injuries on children.

For example, what might have been viewed as a death from Shaken Baby Syndrome a decade ago might be seen as death from natural causes today.

Nethery said the testimony from these pathologists factored into the government's decision to fast-track the cases.

"The ministry wants to expedite those cases where there is this potential fresh evidence, for example evidence from eminent forensic pathologists presented at this inquiry that pathology evidence presented at trial was faulty or potentially, that the science has changed," she said.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Compensation For Wrongly Jailed Man A `Priority'

February 21, 2008

By Marc Caputo-The Miami Herald

After spending 24 years in prison for two rapes he didn't commit, Alan Crotzer will likely win $1.25 million in state compensation now that the leader of the Florida Senate announced Wednesday that the case will be ``a priority of the Senate.''

Senate President Ken Pruitt's decision is a near-180 from last legislative session, when he blocked a compensation bill for Crotzer on procedural grounds, despite the entreaties of his own members, the House and Gov. Charlie Crist, who called the case ``a no-brainer.''

Crotzer, 47, didn't care Wednesday about why Pruitt changed his mind. He said he was just happy that he was finally close to getting something for the quarter-century he lost in the ''evil'' of the prison system.

''I've never lost faith in people. Ken Pruitt has a good heart. Even though I was done wrongly, I find that people, when they're given time and understanding, do the right thing,'' Crotzer said. ``It gives me real optimism.''

Pruitt's main objection to Crotzer's compensation bill last year: He and House Speaker Marco Rubio had agreed ahead of time to approve a dozen compensation bills, and Crotzer wasn't one of them.

Pruitt didn't give much reason for supporting Crotzer's claim this time around, save that Crotzer was the ''poster child'' for those exonerated on the strength of DNA evidence. ''The Crotzer bill will be a priority of the Senate as, I believe, it is a priority of the House,'' Pruitt said Wednesday.

Another priority: a law to automatically compensate wrongfully convicted Floridians so that they won't have to suffer through the legislative process.

Crotzer's claim gives him about $50,000 for each year he spent in prison. That's less than the $2 million given to Wilton Dedge, who was the fourth Florida man exonerated by DNA. Crotzer was fifth and, including this lawmaking session, will have sought compensation three times since his release in 2003.

Since then, he has moved from St. Petersburg to Tallahassee.

This year, Pruitt said, he and Rubio will likely agree on a number of other claims bills to compensate Floridians wronged by either the state or local governments.

Under Florida law, victims of government carelessness need the Legislature to approve any payout over $200,000 per incident -- even if the money in question was decided by a judge, jury or a local government.

Dozens of claims languish year after year, prompting Pruitt and Rubio last year to be the first presiding officers in years to start clearing out the backlog.

Jenny Greenberg, the head of the Innocence Project, which helped exonerate Crotzer, said a ''universal claims bill'' for the wrongfully convicted will help, but hopes that lawmakers won't make the bill so restrictive that victims of the justice system won't be able to get money to get back on their feet.

''It's not just Alan Crotzer who's affected,'' she said.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Texas, New York, Illinois Top States That Use DNA Testing To Free Innocent Prisoners

February 20, 2008

Vittorio Hernandez- AHN News Writer

Carrollton, TX (AHN) - DNA testing is proving to be a potent tool to free innocent prisoners. Across the U.S., lawyers, prosecutors and law students are going through old files in an attempt to uncover wrongful convictions that could still be overturned by DNA tests.

Texas, New York and Illinois lead the states in exonerating convicts through the aid of modern technology. Dallas County has the highest number of exonerations with its 15th on Jan. 3. That day Charles Chatman was released from a 99-year sentence for sexual assault. He had spent the last 27 years behind bars.

Chatman was under a 4-year probation for a 1978 burglary when he was identified in a police lineup as the rapist of a woman from the same neighborhood. Since the first try at DNA testing did not yield any result, further DNA testing was suspended until 2004 when a new DNA analysis tool was available. The new test proved Chatman did not commit the crime.

Since 1989, there had been 213 post-conviction exonerations through DNA tests. The bulk of these new freedom were done with the assistance of Innocence Project, an umbrella organization that helps inmates to gain access to DNA testing to prove they did not committed the crimes they have been incarcerated.

In Virginia, over 534,000 files had been reviewed the past three years. Around 2,215 cases had been tagged for further scrutiny, which may eventually lead to DNA testing and freedom for the convict.

DNA testing was used to confirm that it was the blood of a 7-year old girl found on the clothes and fingernail clipping taken from her stepfather in the ongoing Nixzmary Brown investigation.

The long process and high cost of DNA testing notwithstanding, Pete Marone, director of Virginia's Department of Forensic Medicine, said, "If we identified (only) one guy who shouldn't be in prison, would it be worth it? I say yes."

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

DNA Tests Fuel Urgency To Free The Innocent

February 19, 2008

By Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY

CARROLLTON, Texas — After spending nearly 27 years buried in the vast Texas prison system for a crime he did not commit, Charles Chatman's first weeks of freedom have been overwhelming.

Each of the six rooms in his new apartment, including the bathroom, is larger than any of his previous cells. The gleaming entertainment system and sleek laptop from family, friends and attorneys might as well be hollow props on a movie set, because Chatman, 47, has little idea how to operate them — testimony to more than a generation lost behind bars.

Chatman was exonerated last month by DNA testing while serving a 99-year sentence for sexual assault. His release Jan. 3 marked the 15th such exoneration in Dallas County during the past five years, the most of any county in the nation. Aside from New York and Illinois, Dallas County also has produced more exonerations than any state.

As DNA technology and investigations identify a mounting number of wrongful convictions, the urgency to find others like Chatman is increasing. From Virginia to California, local prosecutors, law students and defense attorneys are combing through hundreds of thousands of old files in search of flawed convictions.

Last week, two men were cleared of separate murder convictions in Mississippi after new DNA testing led authorities to another man now charged in both slayings. It was the first time post-conviction DNA testing had led to an exoneration in Mississippi, one of eight states that does not have a law allowing for such testing. Lawyers with the Innocence Project pushed the state to move forward with the testing.

Since 1989, there have been 213 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the USA. Of those, 149 came in the past seven years, according to the Innocence Project, the parent organization of a far-flung network that helps prisoners obtain DNA testing or other evidence that could prove their innocence.

Among efforts to ferret out the wrongfully convicted:

•In Virginia, officials are conducting a sweeping examination of more than 534,000 files, the largest such review in U.S. history. Three years and five exonerations after the effort began, authorities have identified 2,215 more cases they say are worthy of scrutiny.

"If we identified (only) one guy who shouldn't be in prison, would it be worth it? I say yes," says Pete Marone, who as director of the state's Department of Forensic Science is helping to direct the review.

•A team of attorneys and law students at California Western Law School, part of the national Innocence Project network, fields up to 1,000 inmate requests for help each year.

Jeff Chinn, assistant director of the Southern California Innocence Project, says 5% to 10% of those requests are selected for further investigation. Since the program began in 2000, five have been exonerated, including Timothy Atkins, who was freed last year after serving 20 years in prison for a wrongful murder conviction.

•In Arizona, volunteer lawyers, law students and investigators have screened more than 2,500 cases in the past decade and secured one exoneration: Byron Lacy, freed in 2003 after serving six years for killing a security guard and wounding another man. About 20 other prisoners have won some kind of post-conviction relief, such as a shorter sentence.

•In what may be the most aggressive move by a local prosecutor, Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins has turned over more than 400 files to law students working for the Innocence Project of Texas. The students are reviewing decisions by previous administrations to reject requests for DNA testing.

Watkins, Dallas County's first African-American district attorney, says opening the files may have been his easiest decision since being sworn in last year, even in a state where politicians have a reputation for supporting aggressive law-and-order policies.

"The reason I'm here is a result of what happened in the past," Watkins says. He cites a tradition of aggressive prosecution in Dallas and routine denials of prisoners' requests for post-conviction reviews, which he says shrouded past errors. Those errors have emerged, Watkins says, largely because the local forensics laboratory preserved the biological evidence at issue in many of the recent challenges by prisoners.

For many places, a review of convictions such as that in Dallas County is not possible because physical evidence has not been preserved. The lack of uniform preservation standards is a big concern among advocates for post-conviction challenges, says Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project.

But for Watkins, the available evidence offered "an opportunity to restore the credibility of this office."

Judge takes interest in case In 17 years on the bench, Dallas Judge John Creuzot has heard countless defendants declare their innocence. But Chatman's 2001 application for post-conviction DNA testing was different.

"I noticed the guy had been inside for a long, long time," Creuzot says. At the time, Chatman had served 20 years of his 99-year sentence for rape.

It is rare for a prisoner to pursue a challenge after so long behind bars. Creuzot thought of boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, freed after spending about 20 years in prison for the slayings of three men in New Jersey. Carter's case inspired the movie Hurricane.

"Maybe it was the movie," the judge says. "Something about (Chatman's case) caught me."

Chatman had lived in the same neighborhood as the rape victim. He was nearing the end of a four-year term of probation for a 1978 burglary conviction when she was attacked, and he was included in a police lineup of possible suspects. The victim identified him as her attacker, and he was convicted in 1981.

As Creuzot reviewed the file, the possible existence of untested DNA evidence and the identification of Chatman in the lineup — both among the most common reasons for a wrongful conviction — seemed to demand more scrutiny.

Months later, during Chatman's first appearance in Creuzot's courtroom, the judge says something else struck him, and raised questions about Chatman's guilt. "I can just remember his face when he said: 'I didn't do this. I didn't do this,' " he says.

A first attempt at DNA testing of the assailant's biological sample by the Texas Department of Public Safety did not produce a result, according to a chronology of the case prepared by the district attorney's office.

Chatman feared that further testing also would prove inconclusive and consume the biological sample — and with it, any chance of exoneration. Chatman and Michelle Moore, his attorney from the Innocence Project of Texas, asked that additional analysis be suspended in 2004 until testing technology improved.

Moore says Chatman showed remarkable judgment — and patience — in seeking the delay. "How many people would have done that?" she asks.

The opportunity for more reliable testing came last December, when the judge ordered a new analysis using a method known as YSTR testing at Orchid Cellmark Inc., in nearby Farmers Branch, Texas. The new testing allows for better identification of male DNA profiles in samples in which female genetic material often is present, says Robert Giles, Orchid Cellmark's executive director of research and development.

Before ordering the test, Creuzot brought Chatman back to his office to see whether he wished to go forward, knowing that the new test — if inconclusive — likely would leave no more material to analyze.

"I asked him, 'Are you sure? This is it.' "

"Yes," Chatman responded. "I didn't do this."

At 8:30 a.m. on Jan. 2, weeks before results were due, the phone rang in Creuzot's office. Chatman's DNA was "not a match." Creuzot summoned an anxious Chatman from the county jail, where he was staying temporarily while awaiting the results.

"I knew what the test should say, but I still had that little doubt," Chatman says. "I had been a hard-luck guy for a long time."

When Chatman arrived, Creuzot stuck out his hand and said: "Man, Happy New Year!"

"He looked confused at first," the judge says. "I asked if he wanted to call somebody; I handed him my phone. He had never used a cellphone before, so I had to dial the number for him."

There was so much paperwork to process, Creuzot couldn't release Chatman immediately, so he ordered a celebratory lunch.

"I asked what kind of steak he wanted; he didn't know what to say, except to request that he wanted it 'cooked a lot,' " Creuzot says.

Chatman sat with the judge's 7-year-old son, Ethan, at a table in Creuzot's locked courtroom. (Ethan, on a holiday break from school, had accompanied his father to the office.) Chatman hadn't used a knife in years and began tearing the meat with his hands.

Lunch was one small measure of the seismic change in Chatman's world — a change Creuzot made official that day. He called the prison to inform the warden that Chatman was not coming back.

A 'logistical nightmare' Creuzot was instrumental in securing Chatman's release, but not all of the wrongfully convicted have found similar advocates.

Lack of funding for post-conviction analysis, including DNA testing and expert testimony, has hamstrung prisoner-assistance campaigns. The percentage of overturned cases is small, and the challenges are daunting.

Virginia's Marone calls the historic effort there to review thousands of old cases a "logistical nightmare."

The broad review, ordered more than two years ago by then-governor Mark Warner, was triggered in part by the discovery of blood and other potential biological evidence attached to old case files, some dating to 1973. The evidence had never been disclosed. The state began reviewing all of the files from 1973 to 1988, the time period at issue.

Because the files were not automated during that time, much of the project has required a hand-search of the documents in a labor-intensive and increasingly expensive examination. Marone says the analysis has cost about $1.4 million, and money is running out.

Virginia and the cash-strapped Arizona Justice Project had hoped to win some of the millions of dollars Congress set aside in 2006 to assist in DNA testing. Late last year, USA TODAY disclosed that the Justice Department had not distributed any of the money.

"That is wrong," Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy said last month at a hearing to address the issue. "That is irresponsible."

The Justice Department, which pledges to resolve the problem, had said that rules imposed by Congress made it difficult for states to qualify.

For example, the law requires that states' attorneys general compel police departments to preserve biological evidence for testing. However, attorneys general don't always have authority over the operations of all police agencies.

In Dallas County, much of the work to identify the wrongfully convicted is falling to law students and volunteer lawyers. Crowded into a small jury room in the Frank Crowley Courts Building, they leaf through thick case files, some more than three decades old.

Many of the students, drawn from local law schools, get no formal credit for the work. They work on all aspects of the cases, from re-interviewing witnesses to ensuring that those who are freed have new clothing when they leave prison.

Jessica Mines, 27, a second-year law student at Texas Wesleyan, says seeing the release of a prisoner like Chatman is "priceless."

Considering a lawsuit Since Chatman's release, he has traveled to Washington, where he was welcomed at a Senate hearing and met briefly with Leahy, a vocal backer of legislation to help free the wrongfully convicted.

Chatman is eligible for up to $50,000 per year from the state for each of the 27 years of lost time. He is weighing a lawsuit over his incarceration and will get the state money only if he decides not to sue.

His family and attorneys provide much of what he has — the apartment, furniture and a new pickup. He earned a general educational development (GED) certificate in prison and is considering enrolling in college, or pursuing a career as a welder or auto mechanic.

For now, the new truck mostly sits in a parking space because he fears he'll lose his way if he strays too far from his sprawling apartment complex. But there are plenty of other options for life outside his cell.

"I can just go take a bath," he says, "and lay in the tub any time I want."

Monday, February 18, 2008

Falsely Accused Priests Are Also Victims

February 18, 2008

Susan Frazier- The Cincinnati Enquirer

Many years ago, the brother of a friend of mine was abused by a priest. The psychological wounds he and his family suffered from that violation remain unhealed.

I also have a priest friend who was falsely accused of that abominable act, and who has lived a nightmare as he has defended himself against the abhorrent claim.

Now, finally, after being found without guilt by the archdiocesan tribunal, the criminal court, the civil court (upheld by the appeals court), and ultimately the Vatican, the Rev. Ray Larger is returned to priestly ministry. And thank goodness for that.

Because he was innocent of this charge, I had faith exoneration would come. But while one can be restored to ministry, it's almost impossible to fully restore a good name. Some people will always remember the accusation, and not the exoneration. Nor can restoration erase the dreadful memories, the wounding things said about him, the embarrassment and pain of not exercising his calling, the long fear for his future.

As a priest, he will try to put these things behind him and to forgive those who wronged him. He will try to think forward, not back. While his ministry may never be what it would have been, he will embrace his return to what is possible.

But we should all recognize that a falsely accused priest is a victim, just as one abused by a priest and betrayed by the hierarchy is a victim. Accusing the innocent neither heals nor offsets the pain of those who were abused.

I pray there will be no more victims of abuse. And I pray, too, that no other innocent person will be victimized by those who for reasons of greed, politics, desire for publicity, prejudice, or embittered and blind zeal for a cause, advance and support false accusations.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Eye Witness Id's Wrong Man, Spends Two Months In Jail Before Cleared

Wrong Man Arrested For Pittsburgh Bank Robbery

February 15, 2008

Karen Welles- Channel 11 WPXI

PITTSBURGH -- Michael Disimo spent two months in jail after he was accused of bank robbery.

On September 30th, 2005 a man walked into a National City Bank in Bethel Park and robbed a teller.

Not long after the robber a police officer pulled Disimo over along route 88.

The officer thought he matched the description of the robber.

The bank teller was brought to the place where police stopped Disimo to identify him.

Police positioned the teller 100-feet away from Disimo. From this distance she couldn't make a positive identification, so they moved her 50-feet closer to Disimo--still no positive id.

Finally police positioned her just 15-feet from Disimo.

At that point police said the woman said she was 100-percent sure it was him.

Disimo said,” He placed handcuffs on me and I asked him, am I being placed under arrest and they said yes. I was like in shock and I panicked ya know."

He was questioned by police and the FBI.

Disimo said, "They had given me the polygraph test and they said that I failed it and at that point, ya know, I was really like confused, shocked, scared, definitely scared because I had never been arrested before."

Disimo was taken to the Allegheny County Jail and held on $50,000 bond. Money he didn't have.

"I flipped out and basically had a breakdown. They had put me on a suicide watch." Disimo said.

While Disimo sat in jail for two months he missed his son's birthday and lost his job Finally, at his preliminary hearing the teller took back her positive id.

It turned out the real bank robber was Thomas Charlier of Castle Shannon. Charlier confessed to 16 bank robberies in all.

Disimo sued the bank and the teller, but his case was dismissed.

Noted civil rights attorney Timothy O’Brien did not represent Disimo.

He said "Under state law there is no claim as it presently stands for simply negligent conduct.

There are many states that do have a cause of action claim that a citizen can make for the negligent prosecution or arrest. But that is not the case in Pennsylvania."

Attorney John Rago of the Duquesne University Law School is chairman of Pennsylvania's new advisory committee on wrongful convictions.

Rago said, "In the U.S. right now there are 213 post conviction DNA exonerations and in more than three quarters of those cases eyewitness failure appears to have been a significant contributing factor to that wrongful conviction."

Disimo said, "You better hope to god you can prove you're innocent."

A spokesperson for National City said the teller performed in accordance with the bank's procedures.

She declined to answer questions.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Illinois Authorities to Compile List of Felons Needed for DNA Database

February 14, 2008

By David Mendell Chicago Tribune

About 30,000 ex-felons in Illinois have not provided a sample for the state's DNA crime database as required by law, prompting Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan on Wednesday to convene a task force aimed at closing that gap.

Authorities plan to identify ex-offenders who have not provided a genetic sample and then compile a list to be distributed to all law enforcement in the state. Offenders who come into contact with authorities would be ordered to provide a cheek swab of DNA, Madigan said. Offenders who don't comply would face a misdemeanor charge.

In August 2002, Gov. George Ryan signed a law that required all felons to submit genetic material for inclusion in a DNA database. More than 275,000 have provided material, but Madigan estimated that 30,000 have not.

The DNA information is stored in state and national computer databases and then compared with evidence found at crime scenes. DNA profiles have aided in more than 6,000 investigations, assisting in both exoneration of the innocent and conviction of the guilty, Madigan said.

The collection gap largely results from a lag in getting DNA kits to authorities in the months after the law was enacted, Madigan said. Initially, samples were collected by blood tests, which slowed the process substantially.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

DNA Sampling of Arrestees

Lauren Zakalik-WILX News Lansing, Michigan

Obtaining DNA samples in the state of Michigan is no legal piece of cake.

According to attorney Bill Fleener, a person either has to be found guilty of a crime or have a DNA test subpoenaed.

But State Rep. Aldo Vagnozzi wants to make it so that any person arrested and charged for certain felonies will have their DNA automatically taken.

"This would allow police to at least have another weapon in their hands to find the killers of these young women," Vagnozzi says.

These young women he speaks of are rape or murder victims whose cases have gone unsolved. Vagnozzi says by taking DNA samples of arrestees and running their DNA through the unsolved crime database, more cases could be closed.

Fleener calls it "worrisome." He says the bill violates some major privacy issues and leaves much room for abusing the system.

"You can't just drag anyone you want off the streets and say 'Give me your DNA' and 'Let's compare it and see if you committed other crimes.'"

Fleener also worries about what happens if a person's DNA is taken, but they're found not guilty of the original crime they were arrested for.

Vagnozzi says that's something he's considering.

"I think we'll move that if the person is found not guilty, their DNA files are destroyed."

Fleener, who has worked extensively with the "Innocence Project," says once DNA is in a database, it's unlikely it will get erased.

The question now: what do people value more? Their privacy or their protection?

News10 asked Vagnozzi which types of felonies would fall under this category, and he wasn't sure. There's a 9 a.m. hearing Wednesday at the Capitol on this subject.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Straight Talk: DNA Testing and the Legal System

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

By Radley Balko FOX

Last month, a judge in Terre Haute, Indiana released David Scott from prison. Scott was freed after serving more than 20 years for a murder he didn't commit. He was 15 when the crime was committed.

Also last month in Greeley, Colorado, Tim Masters was released after DNA cleared him of a murder for which he had been convicted, and served nearly 10 years. He was also 15 when the crime was committed.

Police pursued him for 12 years before earning his conviction. He's now 36, and has spent most of his life under a cloud of suspicion for a crime he didn't commit.

Scott and Masters are just two of more than 200 people freed by advances in DNA testing after being convicted of crimes they didn't commit.

It's true that 200 don't seem like a large number, particularly when you consider how many cases make their way through U.S. courts each day. But not every criminal case involves biological evidence.

Typically, only murder and rape cases do, and even within those cases, conditions need to be just right. It needs to be a case where the biological evidence available was critical in securing a conviction.

The evidence needs to have been preserved, and still in a condition that's testable. Factor in all of this, and the pool of cases available for DNA testing shrinks considerably, and that 200 plus figure starts to become a significant proportion of the total cases under consideration.

Consider Dallas County, Texas. It has the highest exoneration rate in the country, and is second only to New York and Chicago in total exonerations.

This is largely because of two interesting anomalies. First, because of budget constraints the county began outsourcing its crime lab work to a private contractor in the 1980s. Unlike many jurisdictions, then, where district attorneys destroy case files after a defendant has exhausted his appeals, the private facility where Dallas was sending its lab work to has biological evidence for cases going back 20 years.

At the same time, Dallas' has an (unfortunately) one-of-a-kind district attorney named Craig Watkins, who not only doesn't fight wrongful conviction claims, he is actively working with the Texas Innocence Project to find and clear people doing time for crimes they didn't commit.

Perhaps it's mere coincidence that the same city where, fortuitously, evidence has been preserved going back two decades, and a crusading young district attorney recognizes that there's more to his job than throwing people in prison, would also be the city with the highest exoneration rate in the country.

Perhaps Dallas just has a uniquely flawed criminal justice system, and has now stumbled into an uniquely serendipitous set of circumstances to help uncover it.

Unfortunately, the more likely and troubling explanation is that the rest of the country is just as flawed as Dallas — what is unique about Dallas isn't the number of innocent people in prison there, only that we're finding out about them.

In an illuminating article published last month by the Columbia Law Review, Brandon L. Garret looked at the trials and appeals of 200 people convicted of violent crimes for which they were later exonerated.

Garret's question gets to the crux of the wave of exonerations since the onset of DNA testing: How is it that our criminal justice system, with all of its checks and balances, could allow so many innocent people to be convicted of rape or murder? How did it allow innocent people to be sentenced to death?

Garret found that a variety of factors contributed to the initial wrongful convictions.

False eyewitness testimony was the overwhelming factor (79 percent of the cases), followed by faulty forensic science (55 percent), and false testimony from informants working for the police (18 percent).

In 16 percent of the cases, the defendant actually falsely confessed to the crime. False confessions are common among young and mentally ill suspects, particularly when subjected to harsh interrogation from police.

More troubling was what Garret found in the appeals process.

Many people wrongly assume appeals courts serve as a kind of backup for trial courts, guarding against innocent people slipping through the system. In truth, appeals courts rarely consider the actual guilt or innocence of a criminal defendant.

Most of the time, they address procedural matters relating to how the trial was administered, whether the judge issued appropriate rulings regarding evidence and witnesses, and whether the state properly protected the defendant's constitutional rights.

Garret found that of the 200 people convicted for crimes for which they were later exonerated, just eighteen were granted reversals by the appellate courts.

Of the rest, 67 had their appeals denied with no written ruling at all. In 63 cases, the appellate court's opinion referred to the defendant's guilt. In 12 other cases, it referred to the "overwhelming" evidence of guilt.

In the remaining cases, the appeals courts either found the defendant's appeal without merit, or found some merit in his claims, but found that the trial court's errors were "harmless," or unlikely to have affected the jury's verdict.

Keep in mind, these are all cases in which the defendant was later determined to be actually innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. More alarmingly, Garret found in his research of these 200 cases that "even after DNA testing became available, courts and law enforcement also posed obstacles to conducting DNA testing, and then denied relief even after DNA proved innocence."

Many were convicted despite DNA testing pointing to their innocence, and 41 had to rely on the mercy of a governor's pardon power because, despite their proven innocence, they had already exhausted their appeals, and could make no further claims in court.

"Thus for some," Garret concludes. "Even once DNA evidence exonerated them, our judicial system was unwilling or unable to provide a remedy."

Garret's study is chilling.

Even if these 200 cases represent a small percentage of the subset of cases for which DNA testing can conclusively point to a defendants guilt or innocence — say one or two percent — it's safe to assume that the flaws in the criminal justice system that allowed them to happen exist in all criminal cases, not just rape or murder cases.

The same overeager prosecutors, corrupt or incompetent forensics experts and cops, mistaken eyewitnesses, and indifferent courts that prosecute and oversee these cases also move thousands of cases through the system for which there's no safety net of DNA testing.

If it's this difficult for an innocent person to clear his name in cases where there's science available to deliver a definitive answer, imagine the people now wrongly sitting in a jail cell for drug offenses, theft, or for violent crimes for which there was no available biological evidence—people for whom science offers little hope for relief.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Man May Be Cleared in 1992 Slaying

DNA testing could reverse Miss. murder conviction for first time

February 11, 2008

Heather Civil- The Clarion Ledger

The niece of longtime death-row inmate Kennedy Brewer always believed he was innocent of the 1992 rape and killing of a 3-year-old girl and says the arrest of another man in the case justified her trust in him.

This week's arrest of former suspect Justin Albert Johnson, 51, of Brooksville in Chickasaw County "is very good news," said Paulina Brewer. But "I knew that he didn't do it from the beginning."

Johnson was arrested Monday on charges of capital murder and sexual battery of a child under the age of 14. He has pleaded not guilty and is being held without bond in the Chickasaw County Jail, a jail official confirmed Thursday.

Christine Jackson, the daughter of Kennedy Brewer's former girlfriend, was taken from her home near Brooksville in the middle of the night in May 1992. Her body was found the next day. She had been beaten, raped and strangled. Her body was found clothed at a creek near her home.

"It was a horrendous death the child suffered," said state Attorney General Jim Hood, whose office will prosecute Johnson. The district attorney in Chickasaw County stepped aside because of a conflict, Hood said.

When asked, Hood declined comment on whether testing on Johnson's DNA and DNA found at the crime scene led to the break in the case.

No additional information was available on the suspect.

Brewer's case could represent the first time in Mississippi that DNA evidence has led to a murder conviction being overturned. The Mississippi Innocence Project, a prisoner-advocacy group, championed the case and pushed for an appeal based on DNA testing.

Hood said the Innocence Project had requested his involvement in the case. The charges against Brewer will remain in effect for now, but will be dropped if he's exonerated, Hood said.

Mississippi Innocence Project attorney Vanessa Potkin, who is representing Brewer, says charges against him could be dropped as early as Thursday.

"It's been a long time coming," Potkin said.

After a five-day trial in 1995, Brewer was sentenced to die by lethal injection for the girl's death.

He was moved off death row in 2002 when a DNA test showed his semen did not match the semen found on the victim, but he remained jailed in Noxubee County five more years before being released on bond last September pending a new trial.

Because then-District Attorney Forrest Allgood of Noxubee County was seeking the death penalty in the retrial, Brewer was held.

Lafayette County District Attorney Ben Creekmore took the case in March 2006 and chose not to seek the death penalty and not to oppose bail.

Brewer, who had babysat Christine Jackson the night she went missing, was convicted primarily on the testimony of Dr. Michael West, a Hattiesburg dentist who identified bite marks on Christine's body and testified that several of them were made by Brewer.

At the time of the trial, West had been suspended from the American Board of Forensic Odontology and had resigned from the American Academy of Forensic Science and the International Association of Identification, pending expulsion.

A defense expert testified the wounds were not human bite marks. Allgood, who had tried the case against Brewer, said he is loath to express an opinion about the arrest of another suspect.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Appeals Court Upholds Order for New Trial in '88 Conviction

February 8, 2008

The Associated Press

The state Court of Appeals has upheld a Bolivar County judge's decision ordering a new trial for Jimmy Bass.

Bass was convicted in 1988 and sentenced to 50 years in prison for the robbery of the "61 Quiki" in Cleveland and shooting of store clerk Mary Townsend.

Bass received 20 years for aggravated assault and 30 years for armed robbery. The sentences were to be served consecutively. Bass' conviction and sentence were upheld by the Mississippi Supreme Court in 1992.

Bass was denied a post conviction petition in 1995.

In 2005, he filed a second petition with help from the New Orleans Innocence Project.

It was granted by the Mississippi Supreme Court and led to the trial judge ordering a new trial.

At Bass' first trial, the court record showed Townsend was able to identify a co-defendant from a physical lineup but was unable to identify Bass.

Bass was linked to the robbery and assault by a witness, Keith Thompson, who testified he saw Bass and another man running down the road from Townsend's store.

Bass had claimed he was at home the night of the robbery.

The court record showed after Bass was convicted, Thompson signed a statement saying he had lied about seeing Bass. In a later statement to police, Thompson reaffirmed his testimony and stated that he had not lied at trial.

The Innocence Project argued in Bass' second post-conviction petition that Thompson's testimony was unreliable and that Thompson was a paid police informant who expected to be paid for his testimony against Bass.

On Tuesday, the Court of Appeals agreed Bass should get a new trial.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Wrongfully Convicted Man Acclimating to Freedom After Release

February 7, 2008

Nazish Dholakia- The Daily Northwestern

Herb Whitlock is trying to adjust to life outside of prison.

Whitlock was wrongfully convicted of murder and spent 20 years in prison. Now, he's thinking about possibly opening up an antique shop. He's learning how to use a cell phone, and he finally got to meet his grandson.

Journalism Prof. David Protess, who headed the project that helped uncover evidence that led to Whitlock's release, said Whitlock just wants to lead a normal life.

About 20 years ago, a jury wrongfully convicted Whitlock of killing a woman living in Paris, Ill. He was released from jail Jan. 8.

"It felt like it had been a long time coming, but it felt like it should have happened a lot sooner," St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Greg Jonsson said.

Jonsson was a Medill senior when he began working on the case in 1999, along with fellow Medill '00 alumni Diane Haag, Kirsten Searer and Krista Larson.

Within a year of a young couple's death, Randy Steidl and Whitlock, both construction workers, had been convicted. Whitlock received life in prison after being convicted of killing Karen Rhoads, and Steidl was convicted of killing both Rhoads and her husband, Dyke Rhoads.

In 2004, Steidl was freed after spending 12 years on death row with the help of Protess and his students. But Whitlock remained in prison until last month.

"It was a wonderful day," Protess said. "It was Herb Whitlock's day."

It began on the first day of Protess' investigative journalism class in September 1999. The journalism professor and founder of the Medill Innocence Project wrote the names of four cases on the board. One of the cases was "Steidl and Whitlock," and four students began their investigation.

Prosecutors argued that the motive was a drug deal gone awry. But Protess' students challenged this motive along with the testimony of two key eyewitnesses and the state's timeline of events.

The students spent almost every weekend of their senior year investigating the case.

"In the best tradition of investigative reporting, they became part of the culture of the town," Protess said. "They became part of Paris, Illinois."

The entire experience affected Protess' perception of justice.

"I learned how fallible the justice system is," Protess said. "While we may have one of the best criminal justice systems in the world, it's run by people, and people make mistakes. I had no idea how pervasive those mistakes were."

Haag, now the religion editor for the Shreveport Times in Shreveport, La., said she was frustrated by the slow process.

"I learned not to give up hope," she said. "I think at times I was very tempted to say it would never happen, especially after eight years. I learned that you have to be patient."

Protess said he wanted to start the Medill Innocence Project after working on another high-profile wrongful conviction. It took him eight years to launch the project. Since then, the project has freed 11 men, five of whom were on death row.

"It was an amazing experience as a young journalist to be able to work on this," Haag said. "The lessons you learn from having to ask those hard questions are invaluable."

Phone calls made to Whitlock's lawyers were not immediately returned.

Whitlock is declining interviews because he wants to return to leading a normal life, Jonsson said.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Expand DNA Use

February 6, 2008

Hartford Courant - Hartford, Connecticut

Gov. M. Jodi Rell has proposed legislation expanding DNA sampling to include all suspects of serious crimes. The General Assembly should pass it.

DNA technology has dramatically improved law enforcement's ability to identify criminals and free innocent people wrongly convicted. Broadening the state's database would serve justice.

The benefits of DNA evidence were apparent in the high-profile case of James C. Tillman, the Hartford man who was cleared of rape last year after spending 18 years in jail. Mr. Tillman is one of more than 200 prisoners who have been exonerated through DNA evidence in the past 10 years.

Ironically, Gov. M. Jodi Rell's proposal was validated the day after she unveiled it: Hartford police announced they had linked the same DNA that freed Mr. Tillman to a career criminal who once lived in the city and now sits in a Virginia jail.

Current statutes require the collection of DNA samples from anyone convicted of a felony, a crime against a minor, or violent and nonviolent sexual offenses. Mrs. Rell's proposal would expand sampling to all Class A and Class B felony suspects and people convicted of certain Class A misdemeanors, including criminally negligent homicide, third-degree assault, third-degree assault on an elderly, blind, pregnant or retarded person, fourth-degree sexual assault and stalking.

Class A felonies, the most serious crimes, carry a 10-year minimum prison sentence. Class B felonies carry a five-year minimum.

Gov. Rell's proposal should limit DNA use strictly to crime-fighting. The legislation should include protections against the use of the state's data bank by commercial interests, such as insurance companies seeking to use samplings to determine eligibility for medical coverage.

A similar proposal, introduced last year by state Rep. Michael Lawlor, was defeated in the Public Safety Committee by a single vote.

Perhaps the governor's support will enable the bill to pass this time around. It's overdue.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Johnson Wins New Trial

New evidence discredits key eyewitness testimony

February 5, 2008

By Jodi Weigand, Jesse Miller and Ben Adducchio

The Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Terrell Johnson, imprisoned since 1996 in a gangland-style execution of a government snitch, has been granted a new trial based on new evidence that at the precise time of the killing the woman who said she watched the slaying was several blocks away smoking crack cocaine in a Hazelwood basement.

In a one-page order granting a new trial, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Lawrence O’Toole said Mr. Johnson, 32, proved at an appeals hearing last November that testimony from the new witness, a long-time drug addict named Kenneth “Skinny” Robinson, forced him to order a new trial because the new evidence could not reasonably “have been determined prior to (Johnson’s original) trial,” according to the order.

Shortly after his conviction, Judge O’Toole also reversed Mr. Johnson’s conviction due to ineffective counsel, but that ruling was overturned on appeal and subsequent appeals denied, condemning Mr. Johnson to a life sentence in prison until the ruling Friday. Two others implicated in the killing were acquitted at trial.

"He was so happy, just happy," Saundra Cole said of her husband when he heard the news during a telephone call from the State Correctional Institution at Greene. "But we've been here before. We're just praising God anyway in advance, hoping this is it."

The Allegheny County District Attorney's Office appealed the ruling Tuesday, according to court documents. Neither Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala nor J. Richard Narvin, Mr. Johnson’s present attorney, could immediately be reached for comment.

“The whole thing was a travesty based on lies,” said John Elash, who was the penalty phase attorney in Mr. Johnson’s first trial.

November Hearing Changed Case The Jan. 29, 2008 decision stems from the testimony in November by Mr. Robinson, who said he was smoking crack with Evelyn McBryde, the government’s key witness, at the time Verna Robinson, a recovering drug addict, was murdered only hours after she was supposed to testify in an un-related shooting involving the notorious and deadly Hazelwood Mob, which police believed was responsible for at least 10 unsolved killings in that area.

While she told no one of what she supposedly saw, three weeks later when Ms. McBryde was caught stealing at an area mall, she asked police for a deal if she testified she witnessed the murder by Mr. Johnson and two others. It was her testimony that resulted in Mr. Johnson’s conviction during the first of three trials in the matter.

By the time his two co-defendants went to trial, lawyers and investigators shredded her eyewitness testimony by proving her story did not match that of other witnesses or the murder scene’s landscape. They also produced much more evidence about Ms. McBryde’s drug-fueled criminal background, and documented numerous additional lies, hidden deals and other issues related to her voracity that later led to acquittals for both of Mr. Johnson’s co-defendants.

In 2001, the Innocence Institute of Point Park University, an investigative reporting program where students learn skills through probes of allegations of wrongful convictions, conducted a detailed investigation of Mr. Johnson’s murder conviction. Students interviewed witnesses, examined the crime scene and uncovered numerous other inconsistencies in statements from Ms. McBryde, who is currently incarcerated for bank fraud. The institute uncovered and wrote about numerous instances of questionable deals from prosecutors, hidden evidence and ineffective legal assistance.

According to court documents, she was given reduced sentences for prostituting her children, using them to steal from retail outlets, and even getting away with shoplifting while she accompanied a Pittsburgh Police Detective who was trying to protect her. Ms. McBryde is also known to have used over 11 different names and six different Social Security numbers.

At Mr. Johnson’s trial, Ms. McBryde testified the night of the killing, she went to a nearby bar and then a drug den before she walked up a street and secreted herself behind bushes in front of a house when she watched the attack on Ms. Robinson. After Mr. Johnson’s conviction when Ms. McBryde realized a locked gate would have prevented her from seeing the murder, she changed that story to say she watched the brutal killing from beside the home, which would have placed her in plain view of the killers.

At Mr. Johnson’s PCRA hearing late last year, Mr. Robinson, another long-time criminal and drug addict, came forward for the first time. He said Ms. McBryde, and another man, whose name he couldn’t recall, were smoking crack in a basement on Glenwood Ave., Hazelwood. A short time later, his mother called him to tell him about the shooting of Verna Robinson several blocks away and advised him to get out of the house, known as a “hot house,” or a drug house.

“I told them to leave,” Mr. Robinson testified. “The guy left pretty quick, but Dolly took her time. I told her that Verna had been killed, and she said, ‘What?’”

Neither the jury nor the judge in Mr. Johnson’s first trial or the other cases heard testimony from Mr. Robinson.

At the appeals hearing, Allegheny County Assistant District Attorney Ron Wabby argued that members of the Johnson defense team knew about the information Mr. Robinson had for years, which under the law, precluded them from bringing it up at this late date.

“If I knew this man could have proven my innocence, why wouldn’t I tell someone,” said Mr. Johnson under oath. “I would have been screaming it from behind the prison bars.”

After Mr. Johnson and others testified they did not have the information until just before his latest appeal was filed, Judge O’Toole ruled in his favor.

Will this convicted rapist be released?


Arthur Johnson has missed a lot of things while he's been in prison.

As members of his family comb through a pile of photographs, funeral programs and other keepsakes from the past decade and a half of their lives, the range of their emotions - from laughter to tears and nearly everything in between - is a reminder of how much can happen in 16 years.

That's how long Johnson, better known to family by his nickname, Boo Rabbit, has been behind bars for the 1992 rape of a Sunflower woman.

If Johnson's incarceration proceeds as scheduled, more than two-thirds of his 55-year sentence is still before him.

But according to the results of DNA tests performed last November - which the Mississippi Supreme Court last month ordered the Circuit Court of Sunflower County to review “on an expedited basis” - Arthur Johnson is in prison for a crime he did not commit.

On Feb. 25, when Circuit Court Judge Ashley Hines presides over a hearing to review this new evidence, Johnson could become the first prisoner in Mississippi to be exonerated on the basis of post-conviction DNA testing, his attorneys say.

If Johnson's conviction is overturned - if he emerges from the courthouse in Indianola a free man - Boo Rabbit will make history.

He will also contribute to the evolution of a justice system still struggling to come to terms with the technological advancements that have made it possible for inmates to challenge their convictions years after the crimes for which they are in prison have faded from most people's memories.

But if Arthur Johnson is released, will a rapist be walking free in the Mississippi Delta?

The laughter comes when Johnson's sisters and niece start talking about how he'll eat.

At a recent family gathering in Greenville, the women reminisced about Boo Rabbit. They remembered him as fun, funny and full of life.

“He always used to make everybody laugh,” said his niece, Joyce Hunter, of Greenville.

Hunter mentioned she had spoken with her uncle about prison food. The reviews weren't positive.

“He hates it,” she said.

“If God could bless us to get my brother back, we gonna celebrate with food,” said Johnson's sister, Joyce Allen, of Sunflower. “I know it's been long overdue.”

This made Hunter burst out laughing.

“Aw, man, I bet it's gonna be awesome!” she said. “Oh, God! Just imagine you're locked up 15 years... I just wanna watch him.”

The thought of Johnson eating his first non-institutional meal set off a flurry of activity. Suddenly, the women were busily planning a dinner for Johnson's homecoming.

“We gonna have a barbecue,” Allen said. “We gonna bake some cakes. We gonna cook some good old-fashioned greens. We gonna have hog maws, chitterling and corn bread...”

Hunter started writing a menu. To her aunt's list, she added neck bones, corn on the cob and old-fashioned peach cobbler.

“Soul food!” Allen said. “We gonna have a big celebration.”

But that day may not come as soon as Johnson's family would like.

At the hearing on Feb. 25, there will be a number of possible outcomes, say lawyers on both sides.

Judge Hines may decide to let Johnson's conviction stand.

Or, Hines may order a new trial.

That would give Johnson's attorneys the opportunity to show a jury the DNA evidence they say proves his innocence. It would also give district attorney Dewayne Richardson the chance to drop the charges if he believes the DNA tests are valid. (Richardson said he has no comment at this time about how his office will proceed.)

In other words, Johnson could face 40 more years of prison. He could face a new trial. Or he could walk free that day.

It will all depend on how much trust the justice system places in DNA testing. In the Mississippi courts, that's relatively uncharted territory.

According to the Innocence Project, the organization representing Johnson, Mississippi is one of only eight states without a law providing for access to DNA testing for prisoners with claims of innocence.

Nor does Mississippi have a law requiring evidence to be preserved for future testing.

As the Arthur Johnson case works its way through the state's courts, it is drawing attention to a justice system that has not yet caught up with DNA technology - and, advocates for reform say, it is pointing out the need for new legislation on evidence preservation and access to DNA testing.

To evaluate the DNA evidence involved, you have to understand the case against Johnson.

Early on the morning of July 9, 1992, someone climbed through the bathroom window of a house in Sunflower, made his way to a young woman's bed and raped her at gunpoint.

According to documents filed with the Circuit Court, a police officer took a statement from the victim in which she named “Boo Rabbit” as her attacker. The officer left and returned later with Johnson in custody. The victim identified him as the man who raped her.

During a medical examination at South Sunflower County Hospital, the victim told a doctor she was raped by a single attacker and that she had not had sex during the 72 hours before her attack. Biological samples were collected. A forensic analysis was done. But there was not enough semen to determine the rapist's blood type - the standard test for rape cases at the time.

None of the biological evidence - bodily fluids, hair, etc. - linked Johnson to the crime. But none of it proved him innocent, either. In the absence of scientific proof, the jury took the victim's word over Johnson's. After a two-day trial, the jury found Johnson guilty of rape and burglary on Oct. 15, 1993.

The victim said she did not wish to be interviewed for this story.

Johnson went through several court-appointed attorneys before he found the Innocence Project.

From prison, Johnson sent a letter to the organization's Louisiana office. There, the director of Innocence Project New Orleans, Emily Maw, picked it from among the thousands of requests for legal help the organization receives each year.

“It fit the profile of a case that could well be a wrongful conviction,” Maw said.

Founded in 1992, the Innocence Project is a non-profit organization dedicated to freeing wrongfully convicted prisoners through DNA testing. According to the organization's Web site, it has helped exonerate 212 people so far. Maw says Johnson's case looked promising to the Innocence Project because it involved a single-perpetrator rape and, fortuitously, the evidence was still stored at the courthouse.

If she could get the evidence tested using new technology, and the DNA was not Johnson's, the State of Mississippi might be forced to admit it has the wrong man in jail.

In 2005, Maw's team persuaded Judge Hines to order the evidence - the victim's clothes and several biological specimens - to be tested by a company called ReliaGene in New Orleans. The Innocence Project paid the bill. After an inconclusive round of testing and some delays caused by Hurricane Katrina, ReliaGene came back with a definitive result last November.

According to the company's report, the semen on the victim's clothing could not be from Arthur Johnson.

The tears come when Johnson's family starts talking about the relatives who have passed away since his conviction.

“While my brother was locked away, he lost his mom, he lost his dad, he lost several sisters and brothers,” Allen said. “He lost out on his family.”

“Imagine them dying thinking, ‘The son I beared is a rapist,'” Hunter said.

Johnson also missed the chance to see his own children grow up, his family said.

“Over the years, I've tried to keep him in touch with his kids,” Hunter said. “But his kids really don't know him, because they was like babies.”

Johnson's daughter, Dorothy Johnson, of Jackson, says she has been in touch with her father by telephone throughout his imprisonment, but has no memory of him from before.

Dorothy Johnson gave birth to a daughter of her own last Tuesday. Like his other grandchildren, Johnson has never met her.

“How do you regain that?” asked Allen. “How do you pick up the pieces and carry on from being locked away for that amount of time?”

According to Maw, the first post-conviction DNA exoneration in the United States was in 1989. Forensic DNA technology has emerged in, more or less, the same period of time that Johnson has been in prison. But while that is a long time in a person's life, it is a short time in the life of the legal system.

“Legal machinery has not easily caught up with science,” Maw said. “There are a lot of laborious, lumbering procedures you have to go through to get someone out.”

Maw and other advocates for reform have started working to increase the viability of DNA testing in Mississippi. Last month, Maw, together with author John Grisham, Columbus attorney Wilbur Colom and other proponents of increased access to forensic DNA testing started a branch of the Innocence Project at the University of Mississippi.

Tucker Carrington, director of the Mississippi Innocence Project, says the state needs new laws for the DNA age.

“Mississippi doesn't have any meaningful post-conviction DNA legislation,” Carrington said. “This is in the face of this kind of national trend where just about every other week you read about another exoneration somewhere.

“These cases aren't aberrations,” he continued. “They occur with far more frequency than we should feel comfortable with.”

Carrington said his organization has helped put together a bill currently before the Legislature that would form a task force to assess the state's need for new legislation.

“The Mississippi Legislature needs to pass a law that enables convicted prisoners like Mr. Johnson to obtain DNA testing,” said Maw. “And if they are indigent, if they are poor, like most prisoners are, the state needs to pay for that testing.

“There must be laws requiring that evidence be preserved for the duration of the conviction,” Maw continued. “It must not be that we cannot check the accuracy of our convictions because evidence has been thrown away.”

But Carrington said Mississippi may be far from meaningful reform.

“Even if there were the political will to pass it, I don't think the state - and by that I mean the people who would actually keep the evidence - would be able to do it,” Carrington said.

Sharon McFadden, the Sunflower County Circuit Court clerk who stored the evidence from Arthur Johnson's case - and who, in doing so, made his upcoming hearing possible - said she and her colleagues simply can't keep evidence forever.

“There will be a point in time when I'm sure that there will be a need to clear out evidence that's no longer needed in a case, meaning that there's nothing pending in any of the courts,” McFadden said. “Storage is at a premium for everything in these old courthouses.”

Then there is the cost of testing. The president of ReliaGene, Sudhir Sinha, said the tests his company ran for Arthur Johnson cost about $1,100 each. Although Sinha said he gives discounts to state agencies, it is easy to imagine the spiraling costs that could follow from a law providing access to DNA testing for any prisoner who wanted it.

And there is the issue of reliability. Even advocates of DNA testing such as Carrington acknowledge that the process is imperfect.

“DNA evidence is not infallible, in part because it's handled and analyzed by human beings,” Carrington said. “In a garden-variety case, DNA evidence can become adulterated, damaged and so forth.

“And also, there is some subjectivity in the reading of DNA profiles,” Carrington added. “You need to do some due diligence to make sure that the lab is a reputable lab.”

So what does this all mean in Arthur Johnson's case? Is he innocent or not?

Perhaps only he knows for certain.

But Sinha said ReliaGene - which has been accredited by the American Society of Crime Lab Directors, among other bodies - is “absolutely confident” in its result.

“This test is very good to exclude a person,” Sinha said. “If the DNA does not match, we know that this person is not involved in this case.

“We had two pieces of evidence,” Sinha continued, “and both cases gave the same result: that this evidence does not match Arthur Johnson.”

There are some difficult decisions on DNA testing, evidence preservation and the very nature of justice that lawmakers, judges, lawyers and ordinary citizens in Mississippi are going to have to face.

The question of what to do with Arthur Johnson on Feb. 25 is only one of them.

As Johnson's niece said near the end of her family's gathering, “There's a lot of Arthur Johnsons that are in prison.”

Monday, February 4, 2008

Justice opens blind eyes

Kaffie Sledge Columbus Ledger-Enquirer

One of my grandfather's favorite quips was, "Are you going to believe me or your lying eyes?"

Seems Innocence Project is using DNA results to answer that very question in cases involving rape convictions.

The trauma associated with rape and sexual assault is mind altering. The case of Jennifer Thompson of Burlington, N.C., is a prime example of that.

In July 1984, an unknown assailant threatened Thompson with a knife and raped her.

"An aspiring college student at the time of the crime, she made it her purpose to study the assailant's face so that he would be brought to justice. She identified the wrong man," said

Thompson identified Ronald Cotton as the man who raped her.

Almost 11 years later, however, DNA exonerated Cotton and proved the guilt of a man named Bobby Poole. Filled with remorse, Thompson met Cotton and asked for his forgiveness. He said he forgave her. The two became friends and began accepting joint speaking engagements.

Still, knowing what she knows and working as she does with Cotton, Thompson has said when she thinks about the rape it's the exonerated man's face she still sees. Despite conclusive scientific evidence that another man was the actual rapist, she can't get the wrongfully convicted man's face out of her memory.

"Today Thompson speaks out about her experiences and the dangers of relying solely upon single eyewitness testimony to convict a suspect," said

Eyewitness testimony is involved in more than 80 percent of wrongful convictions, said Lisa George, Georgia Innocence Project communications director.

GIP discovered DNA evidence that exonerated John White of Manchester. On Dec. 10, 2007, White was released from Macon State Prison. The DNA test results that exonerated White, fingered James Edward Parham, who ironically was in the same 1979 lineup in which White was identified by a 74-year-old woman as the man who raped her Aug. 11, 1979.

One of the problems with eyewitness identification is there is nothing in writing about how eyewitness testimony is to be collected, George said.

"In John's case, it was dark and the woman wore glasses, which she would not have been wearing at three or four in the morning. The jury was looking at her -- she was so badly injured that a rape kit could not be collected. And the beating left her partially paralyzed. The jury believed this lady when she said John did it," George said of the White case.

George said GIP submitted open records requests to the 493 law enforcement agencies in Georgia, this includes campus police departments. Of the 350 that responded, "More than 80 percent reported having no written protocol for the collection of eyewitness testimony."

While those exonerated, such as White, said they see DNA testing as a godsend, the flipside can be ugly and unrelenting, said George, who recalls one woman's outrage: "I don't care what your damn DNA says, I know he's the one who raped me."

Friday, February 1, 2008

New Trial Ordered in Shaken Baby Case

By RYAN J. FOLEY – Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — An appeals court Thursday threw out the conviction of a woman imprisoned for shaking a baby to death and ordered a new trial, saying the latest research into "shaken baby syndrome" might prove her innocence.

The woman, Audrey Edmunds, was convicted in 1996 of reckless homicide in the death of 7-month-old Natalie Beard. Edmunds, who had been baby-sitting the girl, was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

In her appeal, Edmunds, 46, argued that recent developments in medical research into "shaken baby syndrome" cast doubt on her conviction. The District 4 Court of Appeals agreed Edmunds has presented enough new evidence to win a new trial.

A significant debate has developed over whether babies can die through shaking alone, whether they can stay alive for a time after receiving traumatic head injuries and whether symptoms similar to those associated with shaking can be caused by other factors, the court said.

"The main issue at trial was the cause of Natalie's injuries, and new medical testimony presents an alternate theory for the source of those injuries," Judge Charles Dykman wrote for the three-judge panel.

The appeals panel said the new evidence undermined their confidence in the jury's original conviction but "does not completely dispel the old evidence" used to convict her. A jury should weigh the competing opinions of medical experts in deciding the case, Dykman said.

"There is a reasonable probability that a jury, looking at both the new medical testimony and the old medical testimony, would have a reasonable doubt as to Edmunds's guilt," he wrote.

Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard said prosecutors must decide whether to appeal Thursday's ruling to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. He said prosecutors weren't ready to say whether they would retry the case or drop it if they don't appeal.

Keith Findley, a Wisconsin Innocence Project lawyer who is representing Edmunds, called on prosecutors to drop the case and release her.

"I would hope they would, after all this time and given there really is no evidence against Audrey Edmunds other than this now very dubious scientific evidence," he said.

Findley said he would file a motion as early as Friday seeking to have Edmunds released on bail. Blanchard would not comment on a possible bail request.

The baby appeared healthy when dropped off at Edmunds' in-home day care on Oct. 16, 1995 but Edmunds testified she quickly became fussy. She later found her limp with liquid, apparently formula, coming out of her nose and mouth. Edmunds called 911 and the baby was pronounced dead hours later at a hospital.

Prosecutors contended at her trial the baby died from violent shaking or shaking combined with impact that caused a fatal head injury. A pathologist testified the injuries were consistent with shaken baby syndrome.

The defense contended the baby might have been shaken to death but that the injury could have occurred before she was dropped off.

Edmunds filed her latest appeal in 2006, citing the new research and arguing the baby could have died from a number of other causes, such as choking on formula, seizures or an infection.

Findley said the ruling was among the first from a state appellate court to recognize the new research and reverse a conviction. At the time of Edmunds' 1996 trial, doctors who raised such questions were viewed as extremists, he said. Now, they are in the mainstream.

"It's an enormous decision for Audrey, but I also think it's absolutely the right decision," Findley said. "It's the just outcome in this case."