Category Archives: Wrongful Convictions

Wrongful Convictions

This article on wrongful convictions was published in the November issue of the La Quinta Gem, a local newspaper:

“Our procedure has been always haunted by the ghost of the innocent man convicted. It is an unreal dream.” – Judge Learned Hand, 1923 (United States v. Garrison, 291 F. 646). Unfortunately, that dream is all too real for too many.

It had long been assumed that our justice system always gets the right result.  The fact that the system has a certain “error rate” was exposed with the advent of DNA testing in the 1990s.  Defense attorneys and journalists starting looking into criminal convictions where the results seemed suspect.  This provided a window into the criminal “justice” system by presenting a new way to review old cases and test the accuracy of the jury verdicts.  At present, DNA exonerations have turned into a nonprofit mini-industry, with the result being several hundred exonerations.  Innocence projects across the country have also started looking into other areas of wrongful convictions.  The University of Michigan Law School maintains a National Registry of Exonerations, which currently lists 1,220 exonerations.

Notably, most exonerations involve death penalty cases, other homicides and serious sexual assault cases.  The nature of exoneration work necessarily involves these types of cases.  The work is very time consuming and the cases will typically take years to investigate and then litigate through the court system.  The vast majority of people convicted of crimes would have completed their probation or prison terms before a challenge to a lower-level criminal conviction would wind through the courts.  Also, there is no right to an appointed attorney after direct appeals in lower-level cases, and the non-profit groups that do this kind of work can only take a small percentage of the cases referred to them, so they will start with the most serious cases and only take cases where there is some scientific evidence, such as DNA, to be tested. Others are likely out of luck.  Accordingly, these 1,220 cases on the registry almost certainly represent only the smallest tip of an enormous iceberg of wrongful convictions, each of which represents an innocent person wrongfully convicted and imprisoned.

Because the exonerations that have received the attention of the innocence projects arise from only that narrow category of cases where an individual is serving life in prison and where there is actual scientific evidence to test, we will never know how many individuals have been wrongly convicted in those lower level cases that never receive this level of scrutiny.  These non-homicide, non-sex cases certainly represent well over 90% of the cases in the system.

Groups have studied the reasons that innocent individuals are convicted, and one of the most significant reasons is that their counsel was ineffective, incompetent or overburdened.  Those attorneys appointed to handle these high level cases are expected to be the attorneys most capable, yet oftentimes resources are too slim or incompetent lawyers are not properly supervised, and innocent people are convicted because their attorney did not investigate, consult experts, or simply was not capable of handling their case.  So these substantial problems of reliability at the most serious and elite levels of the justice system leave serious questions about the reliability of the system to get things right in less conspicuous cases.

The best way for a person accused of a crime to avoid a wrongful conviction is to hire a good criminal defense attorney.  There is no safety net in the system, so you need the tools necessary to get through, which only begins with a good attorney.

Forest Wilkerson is a partner at Wilkerson & Mulligan, a criminal defense law firm located in Old Town La Quinta.  She handles felony and misdemeanor cases, and will take cases from pre-arrest through appeal.  For more information call her at 760-777-4322 or visit her website at www.forestwilkersonlaw.com.

Forensic Scientist Claims to Map Bigfoot Genome

Smalfut

DNA testing is almost certainly the forensic evidence most trusted by jurors and most feared by defense attorneys.  Unlike the majority of forensic tests and “science” presented in criminal trials, DNA is real science and is spot-on accurate when done properly.  But DNA testing is no simple thing, and the results will only be as good as the forensic scientist doing the test.

So I found it both amusing and bit scary when I read about forensic scientist Dr. Melba Ketchum’s claim to have sequenced the Sasquatch (Bigfoot) genome.  I thought her claim to be a real expert witness was a bit dubious, but she was named as a DNA expert in a published sexual assault case.

A simple google search reveals that an army of debunkers have examined her results and technique and come to the simple conclusion that she really doesn’t know what she is doing.  For example, there was a long a sophisticated discussion about the problems in her technique on arstechnica.  Sadly, Dr. Ketchum’s Bigfoot work has probably received far more scrutiny than any of her more mundane work testifying as a DNA expert  . . .

Scary Crime Lab News

The ABA Journal just published a chilling article about shoddy and incompetent crime labs. Shockingly, the reports detailed in the article relate to some of the most supposedly sophisticated and civilized corners of the country, including New York City, Boston, and Minneapolis.  Here are some highlights of the article:

In January, the New York City medical examiner’s office confirmed that it was reviewing more than 800 rape cases from a 10-year period during which DNA evidence may have been mishandled by a lab technician who resigned in 2011 after an internal review uncovered problems with her work.

The review, then about half complete, had already turned up 26 cases in which the former technician failed to detect the presence of DNA evidence, including one in which the evidence has since led to an arrest in a 10-year-old rape case. The review uncovered 19 cases in which DNA evidence was commingled with DNA evidence from other cases.

. . . .

[T]he St. Paul, Minn., police department’s crime lab suspended its drug analysis and fingerprint examination operations after two assistant public defenders raised serious concerns about the reliability of its testing practices. A subsequent review by two independent consultants identified major flaws in nearly every aspect of the lab’s operation, including dirty equipment, a lack of standard operating procedures, faulty testing techniques, illegible reports, and a woeful ignorance of basic scientific principles.

Assistant public defender Lauri Traub stumbled onto the lab’s problems when she asked to meet with the analyst who tested suspected drugs one of her clients was accused of possessing. Traub says she was horrified by what she found: The lab, an old-fashioned “cop shop,” was run by a police sergeant with no scientific background, had no written operating procedures, didn’t clean instruments between testing, allowed technicians unlimited access to the drug vault, and didn’t have anyone checking anyone else’s work. Analysts didn’t know what a validity study was, used Wikipedia as a technical reference, and in their lab reports referred to “white junk” clogging an instrument.

5 Men Falsely Accused of Human Trafficking

Five defendants were set free in Riverside on September 5, after the complaining witness admitted during preliminary hearing that she had fabricated the entire story because her pimp was mad at her.  All the men were locked up in county jail and had faced charges that carried potential life sentences.

. . . .Stallion admitted on the stand that she lied. Under questioning from another defense attorney, according to Rodriguez, she had gotten into an argument with her pimp and walked away onto Long Beach Boulevard, which Rodriguez said is known as “Ho’s Row.”

Stallion met the five people and decided to hang out with them, traveling to Moreno Valley willingly. Stallion’s pimp apparently became enraged, Rodriguez said, and the next day Stallion regretted getting together with the new friends and wanted to go back to her pimp.

In an attempt to placate him, Stallion made up the story about being kidnapped and forced into prostitution.

It is rare that a witness cracks like this, and fortunate for the defendants.  If the witness had been a little more invested in her lie or wanted to stick with her initial story for whatever reason, these men might have gotten a life sentence.  Scary.

You have the right to an attorney….(a broken promise)

Today, March 18, commemorates 50 years since the United States Supreme Court in Gideon v. Wainwright determined, for the first time, that poor defendants have a right to an attorney in criminal cases. And while most people waive flags and scream about any violation of Second Amendment guarantees, few recognize and fight for Americans’ rights regarding the Sixth Amendment Right to Counsel.

As a background, Clarence Earl Gideon was an uneducated, unsophisticated, poor and homeless man who had grown up without his father. He began getting in trouble as a young boy and eventually was charged with burglary and theft from a pool hall where they alleged he stole a few bottles of beer. As a stroke of luck, Mr. Gideon asked for an attorney for his trial and was denied by the judge who reminded him that only death penalty defendants were entitled to counsel. Mr. Gideon was outmanned and outgunned and lost his trial easily against an experienced prosecutor. The judge sentenced him to the maximum penalty : 5 years in prison.

Mr. Gideon spent his time in prison researching whether he actually had the right to an attorney for his case, and he determined that he did indeed. He hand-wrote, in pencil, a letter to the Supreme Court (after Florida Courts had refused to hear his case) and the Supreme Court decided to review his case. The Court appointed prominent attorney, and later Supreme Court Justice, Abe Fortas to argue Mr. Gideon’s side. In a landmark 9-0 ruling, the Court determined not only did Mr. Gideon have the right to an attorney, but that the States had to provide attorneys for poor defendants.

As a result of the decision, 2000 inmates in Florida alone were freed. Mr. Gideon was not. The State of Florida sought to re-try Mr. Gideon and, with the help of his new attorney, Mr. Gideon was found NOT guilty.

Mr. Gideon’s acquittal at re-trial speaks volumes about the necessity for an attorney. Yet, if you run a simple google search about Gideon’s amazing promise to protect our Constitutional rights, the search results will discuss the failure of this promise. Public defenders are saddled with more cases than any attorney could handle. As a recent attorney at the Riverside County public defender office in Indio, I know this issue firsthand. As a felony trial attorney, I had more cases than I could reasonably take to trial in 4 years, even while I had cases carrying the potential result of life in prison without parole. During my time at the office, felony preliminary hearing attorneys had caseloads ranging from 60-120 at a time. These attorneys spend a majority of their time in court waiting for their cases to be called and have little time to investigate, research the law, or meet with their clients. Misdemeanor attorneys have caseloads ranging from 120-200 cases at a time. That’s 120 people to meet with,120 investigation requests to write, 120 discovery requests to submit, witnesses to interview, etc., etc….and they are assigned new cases every day. With these sheer numbers, it’s easy to see why even the most dedicated, intelligent, and hard-working public defender might not be able to do as much as they would like on a case.

This is the story at public defender offices across the country. To be fair, California has come a long way in providing the resources for indigent defense, but as you can judge by the numbers above, it’s still not enough. And other state public defender offices are even more overwhelmed.

As you read this, you may be asking why you should care about this issue. First, consider that in Riverside County alone over a year (this is a few years back), the Prosecution had a guilty verdict rate on all charges of around 45% in the cases tried that year (this is from memory and taken from a local judge’s statistics). That means that 55% of people were judged to have been wrongfully held in jail, had their freedom denied, lost their jobs, and spent a lot of time fighting unjust charges. That wrongfully accused person could be you. Remember Mr. Gideon? He was only guilty of leaving a pool hall at the wrong time.

Second, attorneys keep the police in check. Do you know if you were legally stopped? You might question the validity of the police stopping and searching you, or of the police busting down your door and searching your house, but do you truly know if the stop was legal? Do you know how to find out? A good attorney will know almost at first glance if the stop or search was valid. A good attorney will further know how to suppress the evidence or statements that you gave due to the unlawful stop or search. In my practice, I have been told by police officers multiple times after questioning them that they will never do a practice again because I had evidence or statements thrown out of court. Good attorneys change the way the police treat you – for the better.

Finally, attorneys may be the only one on your side. Many clients have told me that I am the only person who believed in their innocence and fought for them. The prosecution is always well-funded and has the benefit of the local police, the sheriff’s department, their own investigators, the Department of Justice, and sometimes even the FBI and ICE to aid them. Add these overwhelming resources to the judge in your case, who most likely recently left the prosecutor’s office, and the jurors who stare at you and overwhelmingly believe that if you’re sitting in that defendant’s chair, “you must have done something.” Can you imagine the weight of all this on you, an innocent man or woman? Your attorney is the only thing that stands between you and this overwhelming show of governmental power. It can happen to you. Believe me.

I get teary whenever I read any individual story of a man exonerated after being wrongfully convicted (over 200 individuals from death row alone!). Let’s just hope that people begin to take the 6th Amendment as seriously as the 2nd and finally fulfill Gideon’s broken promise.

Why Exonerations are so Difficult

Check out this article in the New York Times.  Joseph A. Buffey has been in prison now for more than a decade for a brutal rape he did not commit.  The post-conviction proceedings have taken more than 18 months, and  although his defense team has succeeded in getting DNA testing that excluded Buffey as the rapist done in May 2011, Buffey still remains in prison.  Furthermore, when DNA was run through a government database, it matched another individual who has a history of assaulting women.

The Innocence Project is doing an incredible job with this case.