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NC: DNA Frees Another Wrongly Convicted Inmate

Joseph Abbitt, age 49, was sentenced to two life terms for murder and rape. He served 14 years.

Today, he leaves prison a free man, as DNA saved by the Winston-Salem police department but only re-tested recently, has proven he was not the culprit.

A joint motion to vacate the convictions against Abbitt filed by the Forsyth County District Attorney's Office and the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence is scheduled to be heard at noon today by Judge A. Moses Massey in Forsyth Superior Court.

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Appeals Court Upholds $101.7 Million Verdict Against FBI

The 1st Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld an award of $101.7 million against the FBI for framing four men in a gangland slaying. One man served 33 years in prison, another 29 years and the other two died in prison. The verdict was initially entered by U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Gertner following a 22 day bench trial.

Judge Gertner found the FBI not only withheld exculpatory evidence, it continued to hide it for decades after the trial. The award is to the families of Peter J. Limone, Joseph Salvati, Louis Greco, and Henry Tameleo. The appeals court wrote (opinion here):

“But when we take into account the severe emotional trauma inflicted upon the scapegoats...we cannot say with any firm conviction that those awards are grossly disproportionate to the injuries sustained.’’

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Bruce Lisker Conviction Overturned

Bump and Update: The judge has decided to order Lisker released on bond pending the DA's decision on whether to retry him.

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Original Post Sunday 8/9/09

In 2005, the LA Times published a 15 page online report on the conviction of Bruce Lisker. Lisker, at age 17 was charged with killing his mother. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. I wrote about it here and TChris wrote about it in 2008 here.

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5th Cir. Affirms $14 Million Award to Former Death Row Inmate

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed an award of $14 million to former death row inmate John Thompson for prosecutorial misconduct. The court was evenly divided, which means the lower court's verdict is affirmed.

Judge Edward Prado, who wrote the court's order to uphold the $14 million verdict, said that the appellate court must give deference to the jury's verdict. He added that the Thompson verdict will not subject other cities to "widespread liability" because it is such an extraordinary case.

"The dissent is merely quibbling with the jury's factual findings," wrote Prado. "This oversteps our bounds as an appellate court. The dissent presents nothing more than a skewed version of the facts in favor of the District Attorney's Office...these factual disputes were for the jury to resolve."

Here's what caused the verdict. [More...]

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DNA Frees Another TX Man - This One After 23 Years

Ernest Sonnier served 23 years of a life sentence for rape. Yesterday, he was released from prison after DNA testing and his lawyers from the Innocence Project established his innocence.

Over the last 18 months, genetic testing of evidence found on the victim’s clothing and at the scene of the attack had yielded no trace of Mr. Sonnier, the Harris County district attorney’s office said. Instead, it has implicated two other men. Both are felons and known associates. One is awaiting trial for a different rape.

Prosecutors are not conceding Sonnier's innocence, "though prosecutors acknowledge that the new DNA tests cast strong doubt on the conviction." Now they want to do more investigation. Why didn't they do it when the claims of innocence were first raised?

Texas leads the nation in exonerations of the wrongfully convicted: [More...]

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CT Man Freed After 21 Years, DNA Established His Innocence

Egregious cases of wrongful convictions continue to come to light. Kenny Ireland of Connecticut was imprisoned at age 20 for a rape and murder DNA evidence now shows he did not commit. He was released from prison today.

East Haven State Rep. Mike Lawlor issued this statement:

“This is yet another Connecticut example of an innocent person having spent two decades in prison for a very serious crime while an actual rapist and murderer has been roaming free since 1986. This is not acceptable.

“The legislature, working with the Advisory Commission on Wrongful Convictions, must determine whether any state laws need to change and whether the law enforcement community is using best practices in the investigation of cases in order to avoid wrongful arrests and convictions.

Congrats to the CT Innocence Project which represented him. Ireland will be allowed to apply for compensation under CT law. It will never be enough to make up for two decades of his life.

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Wrongful Convictions Have an Impact on Victims

TalkLeft told Timothy Cole's sad story in this post. Cole was convicted of a rape he didn't commit on the strength of a mistaken eyewitness identification. The rapist, Jerry Wayne Johnson, confessed nine years after Cole went to prison. The Texas judges who heard about it ignored the confession. Cole died in prison 13 years into his sentence. He was posthumously exonerated on the basis of DNA evidence.

As that post noted, the district attorney who convicted Cole didn't seem terribly remorseful. That isn't true of Michelle Mallin, the rape victim who was victimized once by Johnson and a second time by the criminal justice system that staked its entire case on her identification while ignoring evidence that a serial rapist was still on the loose. She spent years in counseling after the rape, and she's back in counseling now, having learned that her testimony sent the wrong man to prison.

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Illinois Convicts Real Killer 14 Years After Wrongfully Convicted Man Is Released

Jeralyn told the story of Rolando Cruz way back in 2002. Cruz, Alejandro Hernandez and another man were charged with raping and murdering a 10-year-old girl who was abducted from her home in Naperville, Illinois in 1983. Cruz and Hernandez were convicted and sentenced to death in 1985. (The jury hung as to the third man and he was never recharged.)

All three men were innocent. The crime was actually committed by Brian Dugan, who went on to murder a 27-year-old woman in 1984 and a 7-year-old girl in 1985. If the police hadn't been so busy fabricating evidence against Cruz and his co-defendants, they might have apprehended Dugan before he committed those later crimes and Cruz would have been spared the 11 years he spent on death row.

Even worse, police and prosecutors knew in late 1985 that Dugan was the killer because he offered to confess to the 1983 murder during plea negotiations concerning the two subsequent homicides. They chose not to believe Dugan because he said he committed the crime alone -- a fact that made the death sentences imposed on Cruz and Hernandez rather inconvenient for the prosecutors who obtained them. [more ...]

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Bad Prosecutor Becomes Corrupt Judge

The evidence left little doubt that the man who shot and killed Carl White Jr. was the same man who, four days earlier, shot another man and raped that man's wife. Cedric Willis was arrested for those crimes. When the results of DNA tests finally arrived, however, they proved that Willis wasn't the rapist. The prosecution dismissed the rape charge but inexplicably proceeded with the homicide prosecution. Even worse, Assistant District Attorney Bobby DeLaughter and his boss, District Attorney Ed Peters, convinced a newly-appointed judge that the jury shouldn't hear evidence that the rapist and the murderer were the same person, and that White wasn't the rapist.

Willis' lawyer filed a motion for a new trial but it languished without a ruling for 12 years. Willis spent those years in the brutal Mississippi prison at Parchman, serving nearly half his time in solitary confinement. With the help of the Innocence Project, his request for a new trial was finally heard and granted. A different judge later ruled that the only evidence against Willis, an eyewitness who identified Willis in court at his first trial, was tainted and couldn't be used against him. The homicide charge was finally dropped in 2006. [more ...]

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Stinson Charges Dismissed

As TalkLeft noted earlier this year, Robert Lee Stinson's Wisconsin homicide conviction was vacated, and Stinson was awarded a new trial, after new DNA testing cast considerable doubt upon his guilt. Stinson's 1985 conviction was based largely on the (now discredited) pseudo-science of bite mark identification.

Yesterday, prosecutors conceded that they could not prove Stinson's guilt and dismissed the charges. Despite spending nearly two dozen of his years behind bars, Stinson said he's learned to put the bitterness of his wrongful conviction behind him.

Stinson is the twelfth Wisconsin inmate set free by the remarkably effective Wisconsin Innocence Project.

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Manhattan DA Candidates and the Problem of Wrongful Convictions

Three Democratic candidates are campaigning to replace Robert Morgenthau, who is retiring as Manhattan's district attorney upon completion of his current term.

Leslie Crocker Snyder, Richard Aborn and Cyrus Vance Jr. All are campaigning on preventing crime and providing alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders. But at a Crain’s breakfast forum in midtown, Messrs. Aborn and Vance contrasted their unwavering opposition to capital punishment to the change in Ms. Snyder’s view since she lost to Mr. Morgenthau in 2005.

Snyder ("a retired judge who once offered to personally administer a lethal injection to a convict") cites her investigation of the reasons for Jeffrey Deskovic's wrongful conviction as the cause of her change of heart about the death penalty. The more cynically minded might think that political calculation accounts for Snyder's conversion. Interestingly, Deskovic is among those who questions Snyder's explanation. [more ...]

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New Report on Faulty Eyewitness Evidence And Wrongful Convictions

The Innocence Project has a released a new report on the role of eyewitness identifications in wrongful convictions. “Reevaluating Lineups: Why Witnesses Make Mistakes and How to Reduce the Chance of a Misidentification,”

The report finds that 75% of wrongful convictions overturned through DNA testing involved eyewitness misidentification. 17 states in last two years have considered reforms. The full report is here (pdf).

240 people, serving an average of 12 years in prison, have been exonerated through DNA testing in the United States, and 75% of those wrongful convictions (179 individual cases as of this report) involved eyewitness misidentification. In 38% of the misidentification cases, multiple eyewitnesses misidentified the same innocent person. Over 250 witnesses misidentified innocent suspects.

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Kids Recant Sex Abuse Claim Against Dad After He Serves 20 Years

Former police officer Clyde Ray Spencer spent 20 years in prison after his kids claimed he sexually molested them and he pleaded no contest to the charges. On Friday, at a court hearing, the kids, now adults, said the abuse never happened.

What persuaded them at first that it did happen and why did it take them so long to retract the claims?

Matthew, now 33, was 9 years old at the time. He told a judge he made the allegation after months of insistent questioning by now-retired Clark County sheriff's detective Sharon Krause just so she would leave him alone.

Tetz, 30, said she doesn't remember what she told Krause back in 1985, but she remembers Krause buying her ice cream. She said that when she finally read the police reports she was "absolutely sure" the abuse never happened. "I would have remembered something that graphic, that violent," Tetz said.

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Innocent Man Finds Freedom and Poverty

Arthur Whitfield could use some money. He served almost 22 years in prison for two rapes that occurred in Norfolk's Ghent neighborhood. DNA testing recently ruled out his involvement. As is common, his wrongful conviction resulted from the victim's mistaken identification.

Whitfield's freedom is largely attributable to two government employees who deserve praise for doing their jobs well.

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Prisoners Freed From Sentences Based on Torture-Induced Confession

Torture extorts false confessions, a fact that was apparently irrelevant to interrogators who tortured detainees suspected of terrorism. The unreliability of torture-induced confessions was equally irrelevant to former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge. In a series of posts dating back to 2003, TalkLeft followed the developing evidence of Burge's aggressive interrogation practices to this conclusion:

Burge and the detectives under his command found unchecked power to torture suspects, primarily black, on the south side of Chicago.

After the evidence of Burge's reliance on torture became too overwhelming to ignore, more than twenty cases that hinged on confessions given to Burge or his detectives were reviewed by the state attorney general's office. Yesterday, as a result of that review, Ronald Kitchen and Marvin Reeves were freed from prison after serving 21 years for multiple murders. The strongest evidence against them was Kitchen's torture-induced confession. [more ...]

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