Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Exonerated inmates are free from prison but not from its effects

By Heather Ratcliffe — ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH- St. Louis, MO

Antonio Beaver never stopped smiling the day he got out of prison.

His family bought him a new suit. The St. Louis circuit attorney gave him an apology. A waitress put a cherry on his ice cream at lunch.

"I came out with a clean spirit and clear mind," Beaver said.

But as the hugs and good wishes faded, Beaver, 43, began a surprisingly difficult battle to rebuild his life after serving a decade in prison for a robbery he did not commit.

He is among a small but growing legion of the exonerated — former inmates who often find themselves treated like other ex-cons while carrying the added psychological scars of unjust treatment and years that cannot be replaced.

Beaver struggled to connect with family, friends and work. He turned to an alcohol habit he thought he had kicked in prison.

He was luckier than some. He was freed by DNA testing, which made him eligible for state compensation. But his despair persists.

"I guess I expected more — a home, transportation, a decent job," Beaver said in a recent interview. "I have to seek and find and struggle. I could have had all that if a decade wasn't taken out of my life."

He was speaking from behind bars again. Last fall, he was sentenced to nine months in the St. Louis County Justice Center after a drunken driving crash.

National experts say Beaver's struggle is common for those unlucky enough to be wrongfully convicted but lucky enough to prove it.

Usually, they leave prison with a handshake, their release papers and nowhere to go. Advocates say there is usually more help — like counseling and temporary housing — provided to parolees who actually did commit crimes.

The nonprofit Innocence Project, based in New York City, is known for its work in helping inmates win release. But that's just the start.

"Most are terribly grateful, and looking forward to reuniting with their families and communities," said Cheryl Pilate, a Kansas City attorney who works with the Midwestern Innocence Project. "But the reality is they are wounded inside on many levels and these scars are not visible sometimes for years."

She said depression, anxiety, substance abuse and paranoia are typical.


Since 1989, the Innocence Project has counted 234 convicts exonerated nationally by DNA evidence. There is no known count of those cleared in other ways, such as the discovery of new evidence or the recanting of a witness.

Time stops for all prisoners while their children grow up, parents die, marriages fail and careers disappear. But the exonerated bear an extra burden.

"They were labeled rapists and murderers — the worst of our society, and they have done nothing wrong," Pilate said. "That eats at them every day."

John Wilson, a psychologist at Cleveland State University who has worked with the exonerated, said: "It looks like a happy ending at the end of the rainbow, but that doesn't happen. The injury sustained is permanent. I don't know anybody who has ever healed from it."

They all suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, Wilson said, in the manner of torture victims or combat veterans.

Wilson said some reincarcerate themselves, retreating to a stark bedroom and refusing to go outside. Some hesitate to go out in public without a "witness." Some carry newspaper clippings to prove their new status.

Beaver spent 10 years in prison for a 1997 carjacking near the Gateway Arch before DNA showed that the injured robber's blood in the car was someone else's. He was released March 29, 2007.

He said he found work sorting parts for a manufacturer in St. Charles but was fired two months later; he blames the stigma of prison. He quit the next job, laundering hospital linens, as too disgusting.

Kate Germond, executive director of the Centurion Ministries, in Princeton, N.J., an advocate for wrongfully convicted, said: "Unfortunately they are not emotionally prepared for life, and they blow these jobs. People grow impatient with them. It's hard for people to accept their limitations. You have to let them come out of their cocoon when they can."


Twenty-five states offer restitution to some exonerated convicts.

In Missouri, only those cleared by DNA are eligible to receive $50 for each day incarcerated, paid over time. Illinois pays from $85,350 to $199,150 to those who get a pardon from the governor or certificate of innocence from a court.

Former Sen. Michael Gibbons, R-Kirkwood, who sponsored an update of Missouri's restitution law, said: "We can't give them those years back. But the state owes them some form of compensation."

He said that he thinks those deemed "actually innocent" by a judge should qualify too but that some lawmakers insist only DNA can deliver such certainty.

Angie Morfeld, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Corrections, said it can refer the exonerated to social service agencies. But unlike parolees, she said, they are no longer under the state's jurisdiction for its re-entry programs.

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce says the state should offer help as well as money to anyone found provably innocent. "I think that it is the pursuit of justice to put these people back into a position, as much as possible, to regain what they have lost," she said.

Steve Toney, now 62, exonerated in 1996 after 13 years in prison for a St. Louis rape, said he cannot keep a home or car even though he collects restitution and a disability pension.

"I'm up and the next minute I'm down," he said. "I'm holding on to what I can."

Pilate understands. "Every aspect of their life was managed in prison," she said. "They were not given the ability to mature, grow or make decisions for themselves."

Wilson said money "doesn't take away the pain or scars" that drive some to die drunk, or high, or commit suicide. He called for a concerted national counseling program tailored to the unique needs of the exonerated, as was done for Vietnam veterans.

"What's the responsibility of our justice system who took their freedom to attempt to restore their well-being?" Wilson asked. "That's a very important moral question that begs an answer."


Missouri's most recent example, Joshua Kezer, 34, said he plans to lean on his faith, friends and family. He was released Feb. 18 after serving 14 years for a 1992 murder in Benton, Mo.

Jane Williams, a social worker in Columbia, Mo., who was involved with Kezer's case, said she is optimistic. "He's a naturally gifted speaker, and we're trying to figure out how to help Josh tell his story."

Kezer visited his family in the Bootheel earlier this month for the first time since his arrest. "I got to hug my cousin, whom I haven't seen in 18 years," he said. "I watched my grandfather weep because he was so happy to see me. It's beautiful being free."

More than anything, the advocates say, the exonerated grieve the time lost with their families.

Darryl Burton's daughter was 1 year old when he went to prison in 1985 in a St. Louis murder case. Within months of his release after an overturned conviction last year, Burton, 47, visited her.

The daughter, Tynesha Lee, 25, said they are getting to know each other after so many years apart.

"There's no way to get it back," she said. "I can't be 10 years old again."

Beaver, whose children were 11 and 13 when he went to prison, said, "I feel like a stranger to them."

He moved in with a girlfriend months after his release. He said his drinking led to arguments, which led to more drinking.

On Aug. 31, he crashed into the back of a car in Bellefontaine Neighbors in which a pregnant passenger bumped her head. He pleaded guilty of second-degree assault.

Beaver said he now regrets turning away opportunities for counseling and alcohol treatment.

"I didn't want to admit I had a problem," he said. "I'm a grown man, and I thought I ought to be able to do this. I was wrong."

He said his priorities are now a place to live, a job and a new relationship with his sons.

"People fought so hard to get me out of prison, and I'm back in here," he said. "I'm so disappointed. I've got to change."

Friday, March 20, 2009

Report: DOJ no CSI-Fails to Enforce Forensic Oversight

North Country Gazette-Chestertown, NY

A report released by the Innocence Project shows that nearly five years after Congress passed legislation to ensure that forensic negligence and misconduct are properly investigated, the law is largely being ignored due to a lack of federal guidance and, as a result, serious problems in crime labs and other forensic facilities nationwide have not been addressed.

The 84-page report lays out key problems with the U.S. Department of Justice’s administration of the program for the last several years and outlines improvements the Obama Administration can make going forward. The report focuses on the Paul Coverdell Forensic Science Improvement Grant Program, which provides federal funds to help improve the quality and efficiency of state and local crime labs and other forensic facilities – as long as those grant recipients have proper oversight mechanisms in place to handle forensic problems.

Specifically, federal law says that as a condition of receiving the federal money, applicants must designate independent, external government entities to review allegations of serious negligence or misconduct affecting the quality of forensic analysis and that those entities must have a process in place for handling such allegations. The report released today includes the results of an Innocence Project survey of the oversight entities designated by grant recipients – and the survey results show that that the vast majority of them are not in compliance with federal law, based on the Innocence Project’s analysis.

“Congress wanted to ensure that serious forensic negligence or misconduct was properly investigated. Instead, the Bush Administration’s Justice Department essentially ignored federal law and let serious problems in crime labs go unaddressed,” said Stephen Saloom, policy director at the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. “The most serious consequence of the failure to enforce proper oversight is the risk to public safety when innocent people are convicted and perpetrators of crime remain free.”

The Innocence Project, which testified before a responsive Congress multiple times on the Department of Justice’s inadequate enforcement of the Coverdell grant program, released the new report to provide a clear roadmap for how the Obama Administration can improve the management of the program.

“With increased attention on making sure that taxpayer money is spent wisely and that the criminal justice system relies on the best evidence possible, this report outlines what has gone wrong in enforcing forensic oversight requirements and how it can be made right,” Saloom said. In order for the Coverdell grant program to operate as Congress intended, the new Administration must manage the program properly and give grant applicants the tools they need to comply with federal laws, says the report, titled “Investigating Forensic Problems in the United States: How the Federal Government Can Strengthen Oversight Through the Coverdell Grant Program.”

The report includes a survey and analysis by the Innocence Project which found that only 13% of the oversight entities meet all of the requirements under federal law – that they be external and independent, and that they have an appropriate process in place for handling investigations.

The Innocence Project compiled and analyzed data on 256 relationships between Coverdell grant applicants in 2007 and oversight entities they designated (some applicants designated multiple oversight entities, and some oversight entities were designated by multiple applicants, so the survey analyzed every relationship). Of the 256 relationships, 234 could be judged on their independence, externality or their investigative process. Of those that could be analyzed, only 32% of the oversight entities designated by Coverdell grant recipients are both independent and external, according to the survey. Among those that are both independent and external, only 40% also have an appropriate process in place to conduct investigations.

Since the oversight mechanism was passed by Congress nearly five years ago, all 50 states have received federal funding for crime labs and other forensic facilities; in all, an estimated $100 million has been dispersed. Approximately 15 allegations of serious negligence or misconduct affecting the quality of forensic analysis have been filed, which the Innocence Project said is a surprisingly low number that can be attributed to the Justice Department’s inadequate administration of the program (because people do not understand how to file allegations and the proper oversight mechanisms and process aren’t in place to handle them).

“When only 13% of applicants comply with federal law, there are serious problems that need to be fixed,” said Saloom. “The broad systemic problems we found can be directly attributed to the Justice Department’s poor administration of the program, which we hope changes under the new Administration.”

The report describes the federal forensic oversight program; outlines the problems that have plagued the program since its inception (with specific examples); explains the consequences of the federal government’s inadequate administration of the program; shows how forensic negligence and misconduct lead to wrongful convictions; and gives specific recommendations for what the federal government, states and individuals can do to strengthen forensic oversight.

Previously, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General, which monitors federal administration of the program, issued two reports outlining serious problems. One report was issued in December 2005, and the second was released in January 2008. The Inspector General’s recommendations have yet to be fully implemented.

The findings in the Innocence Project’s report, released today, include the following problems:

• Designated entities aren’t appropriate for conducting investigations.

• Entities don’t know they’ve been designated to handle investigations.

• Designated entities don’t have an appropriate process for conducting investigations.

• The Department of Justice grants funds to states that aren’t complying with the requirements.

The report also makes note of the potential consequences to the above problems:

• Forensic negligence and misconduct can result in wrongful conviction.

• Real perpetrators may commit additional crimes while innocent people are in prison.

• Problems in labs may not be corrected – further weakening the criminal justice system.

• The public and jurors may lose faith in forensic evidence and the criminal justice system generally when serious forensic problems are not properly addressed.

The report recommends what the federal government, state and local government, and the public can do: Federal government: • Provide better guidance to Coverdell applicants about what qualifies as an independent external government entity.• Provide Coverdell applicants with a clear framework for an “appropriate process” to investigate forensic errors.• Encourage each Coverdell applicant to provide supporting documentation with its grant application.• Make it easier for members of the public to file allegations under the Coverdell program.• Make sure labs are referring allegations to their investigative entities.• Monitor thoroughness and independence of investigations.• Withhold funding when the requirements are not met. State and local government: • Designate appropriate entities and communicate with them about what’s required.• Establish policies to clearly meet the certification requirement.• Facilitate the proper filing of Coverdell allegations. The public: • File allegations under the Coverdell program when appropriate.• Support legislative and executives fixes that can bolster forensic oversight.• The report is being delivered to key members of Congress, Justice Department officials, and state and local government entities who are involved in the program.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Pa.'s New Innocence Project Based on DNA Evidence

John Ostapkovich-KYW Radio-Philadelphia, PA

Prisons are full of men and women who say they are innocent, and a new effort is underway in Philadelphia to help exonerate some who actually are.

The first DNA-based exoneration took place in 1989 and one of the aims of the newly-formed Pennsylvania Innocence Project is to bring more of that to bear in local cases.

Project co-founder, lawyer David Rudovsky says various similar efforts have freed more than 230 wrongly convicted people nationwide. That's revealed a pattern:

"In 75 to 80% of all cases, in which innocent persons have been exonerated, they were convicted at least in part by eyewitness testimony and that can lead us to come up with better methods of obtaining and presenting eyewitness testimony."

So another goal of the project, formed in conjunction with Temple's law school, is to address the causes of wrongful convictions. The web site is innocenceprojectpa.org.