Tagged: DNA evidence

‘Making a Murderer’ – A Broader Debate

“Making a Murderer,” the Netflix series about Steven Avery, who may or may not have murdered Theresa Halbach in a rural Wisconsin town, has created a healthy controversy. Everybody is asking: “Did he do it? Or was he framed by the police?” Avery served eighteen years in jail for a crime he did not commit until he was exonerated by DNA evidence in 1999. His multi-million dollar lawsuit against the county, he alleges, is the motive for the police charging him with murder. Avery, along with his nephew Brendan Dassey, a mentally-challenged teenager, were convicted in separate trials.

The 10-part series is controversial. The documentarians are accused of biased reporting intended to prove the defendants are innocent. But that’s unfair;  ultimately, the series  demonstrates something true and more important: that despite the guilty verdicts we really do not know who killed Halbach, how, or why. The prosecution presented a strong circumstantial case, but this evidence is carefully dissected, and a viewer can readily believe that what little there was had been planted by the police. Moreover, Dassey’s “confession” in which he “guessed” at what the police wanted to hear, and later repeatedly recanted, is utterly uncorroborated by anything the police could find and appears to be the unreliable product of well-known unsavory police interrogation tactics.

We should broaden the debate beyond guilty or not guilty,  because “Making a Murderer” raises several fundamental questions about the criminal justice system.

First, what is the goal of our system? Is the goal to yield results that society is willing to accept? To be sure, we hope the adversary system and the use of juries lead to reliable results. But we know that, as the documentary shows, tragic mistajes are made, eyewitnesses are mistaken, and that the most we can ever hope for is uncertainty.  Is that enough?

Does the criminal adversary system really produce a fair fight? Avery’s retained lawyers worked incredibly hard, were unstintingly loyal, and were highly effective. Dassey was indigent and was assigned an attorney who, from the beginning, believed and announced that his client was guilty despite Dassey’s protests of innocence, and in fact,  handed the prosecution evidence to use against him. After this attorney was removed, new counsel was appointed and did the best he could. But once again we revisit the age-old maxim that the quality of justice depends on how much money you have.

Did the prosecutors perform their constitutional duty to be “ministers of justice”? Whether one buys the claim that Avery was framed, it’s clear that the prosecutor accepted whatever came from the police without any independent reflection. Even after the court ordered the local police to stay out of the investigation, they stayed deeply involved and produced the only “evidence” of guilt. The prosecutors believed Dassey’s fantastic tale of bloodthirsty sexual assault even though not a drop of blood or any other forensic evidence could be found to support it. Moreover, disregarding his ethical obligations, the prosecutor repeatedly made highly prejudicial statements to the media revealing extensive inflammatory details about the crime.

A few other thoughts. The absence of any racial issues – everyone involved is Whites – simplifies the legal and policy questions raised by the film. This is an excellent opportunity. But in their place we see issues of class and culture at play in a small rural community in middle America, a culture we really can’t penetrate. How do rumor, personal history, kinships, friendships, and resentments impact the quality of justice here?

In the final analysis, nobody really knows why or how Theresa Halbach died. Avery may be innocent, a degenerate, or a predator; Dassey may be no more than an immature, mentally-deficient teenager. They may have killed her, or maybe they did not. The title alone raises the provocative question: did the police “make” a murderer by framing a case against Avery? Or did society “make” a murderer by wrongly imprisoning a young man for eighteen years on the basis of a single mistaken identification? One can always fault the messengers, but the series raises important questions.

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NY Court of Appeals Overturns a Murder Conviction Because of Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

POST WRITTEN BYProf. Peter Widulski, Assistant Director of the First Year Legal Skills Program and the Coach of International Criminal Moot Court Team at Pace Law School.

On July 1, 2015, the N.Y. Court of Appeals issued a 5-1 ruling regarding a prosecutor’s comments on summation that may overstate the probative value of DNA evidence presented at trial and defense counsel’s obligation to object to such comments. People v. Wright, No. 109, 2015 N.Y. Slip Op. 05621 (July 1, 2015).

The case involved the murder and alleged rape of a woman in Rochester, N.Y., who was found dead of strangulation by means of a ligature, shortly after she had sexual intercourse. A Monroe County prosecutor pursued charges of intentional murder, felony murder, and rape. Defense counsel admitted in opening statement that defendant had intercourse with the victim around the time in question, but argued that this intercourse was consensual. Counsel also vigorously opposed the murder charges.

In its case in chief, the prosecution called three expert witnesses who testified about the potential scientific value in general of the different methods of DNA testing they employed. The experts also carefully explained the limited probative value that could be deduced from their analysis of the ligature and items relating to the victim’s sexual intercourse.

The jury rejected the rape and felony murder charges, but convicted the defendant of intentional murder, pursuant to Penal Law § 125.25(1). The trial court imposed a sentence of 25 years to life. By a 3-2 vote, the Appellate Division affirmed. People v. Wright, 982 N.Y.S. 2d 219, 115  A.D. 3d 1257 (App. Div. 4th Dep’t 2014).

In the July 1 ruling, all six Court of Appeals judges who participated in the case (including especially dissenting Judge Eugene Pigott) credited defense counsel for effectively eliciting from the prosecution’s expert witnesses during cross-examination the limited probative value their testimony provided regarding identifying the defendant as the person possibly responsible for the murder. The appeal therefore focused decisively on statements made by the prosecution on summation and defense counsel’s response (or lack thereof) to such comments.

Upon review of the record, the Court’s majority held that during summation the prosecution prejudicially overstated the probative value of the DNA evidence its own witnesses provided relating to the circumstances of the case. The Court identified several instances in which the prosecutor told the jury that expert testimony conclusively showed that defendant’s DNA was a match for that found on the ligature. The Court noted that these comments contravened what the experts had in fact stated: that DNA analysis was only able to show that the defendant’s DNA could not be excluded from that found on the ligature.

The Court determined that the prosecutor’s “apparent intent was to persuade the jury that the DNA established that defendant had committed the rape and murder, when the evidence did not, and could not, dispositively establish his guilt.” The Court further held that defense counsel provided ineffective assistance because it could not identify any tactical reason to excuse counsel’s “multiple failures” to object to the prosecutor’s “numerous misrepresentations of the evidence.”

In support of its ruling, the majority noted the significant impact that DNA evidence may have on a jury’s deliberations. It further concluded that aside from the expert testimony, evidence produced at trial was insufficient to support defendant’s conviction for second degree murder. Accordingly, the Court reversed the Appellate Division and remanded the case for a new trial.

NY Court of Appeals Decides to Review 440.10 Summary Denials

In one of its last decisions of 2014, the Court of Appeals held that it will begin reviewing the Appellate Division’s summary denials of CPL 440.10(1)(g) motions.  The Court had held in People v. Crimmins38 N.Y.2d 407, 409 (1974) that

[t]he power to review a discretionary order denying a motion to vacate judgement upon the ground of newly discovered evidence ceases at the Appellate Division.

For nearly 40 years, the Crimmins decision kept the Court of Appeals from reviewing and determining whether such denials constituted “abuse of discretion.” People v. Jones, No. 14-219, ___ N.E.3d ___, 2014 N.Y. Slip Op. 08760, 2 (Dec. 16, 2014). In Jones, this Court overruled itself and explained that “the rule enunciated in Crimmins has needlessly restricted this Court’s power of review concerning CPL 440.10(1)(g) motions….”

In Jones, the Court held that the Appellate Division abused its discretion in summarily denying a defendant’s motion for an evidentiary hearing as part of his efforts to vacate his conviction on the ground of newly discovered evidence, pursuant to CPL 440.10(1)(g). Mr. Jones claimed that newly discovered DNA evidence would exclude him as the perpetrator of crimes of which he was convicted in 1981.  This decision signals a step in the right direction for the NY judiciary trying to grapple with evidence, like DNA, that may not have been available at the time of trial.

Crime-less Exonerations

The National Registry of Exonerations (“Registry”) marked 2013 as a record setting year for exonerations. As of August 2014, there were 91 known exonerations that occurred in 2013, bringing the total number to 1,427. According to the Registry, exonerations are only counted when the defendant is

declared to be factually innocent by a government official or agency with the authority to make that declaration;” or the defendant is “relieved of all the consequences of the criminal conviction by a government official or body with the authority to take that action.

Notably, the Registry continues to report a stark rise in exonerations based upon a post-trial finding that the defendant was convicted of a crime that did not occur. In such instances, a person is “convicted of a crime that did not occur, either because an accident or a suicide was mistaken for a crime, or because the exoneree was accused of a fabricated crime that never happened.”  The Registry reports that almost one third of the 2013 exonerations were in cases in which no crime occurred. To date, a number of “crime-less” cases have already been reported for 2014.  Many of the recent “crime-less” exonerations involved child abuse prosecutions, which were overturned due to improper police  interrogation techniques when questioning minors, and/or the prosecution’s reliance upon suspect medical evidence.

Unfortunately, there are many obstacles to re-investigating and presenting a “crime-less case” for review, since such cases are generally based upon circumstantial evidence. The Registry reported that a majority of reported  “no-crime” convictions resulted from the prosecution’s presentation of false testimony, and its unfettered reliance on cooperators, informants, and rogue police officers. Other no-crime convictions resulted from the prosecutions reliance on faulty scientific evidence, which incorrectly determined instances of arson and/or murder.

Earlier this year, Professor Samuel Gross of Michigan University School of Law noted that “these cases used to be very uncommon, as they are extremely hard to prove,” given that “there’s no DNA to prove someone else guilty, and no alternative confession to draw upon.” However, Professor Gross explained that the recent rise in crime-less exonerations is a hopeful sign that “prosecutors and judges have become more sensitive to the dangers of false accusations and are more willing to consider that a person is innocent even where this is no DNA to test or an alternative perpetrator coming forward.”


The North Carolina Exonerations: Innocence Commisions

As reported in the New York Times, two men were recently exonerated through proceedings in the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission based on DNA evidence that demonstrated the real criminal was another original suspect who had committed a similar crime. The two men each had served thirty years in prison, one on death row.

North Carolina of course is the only state in the United States with an independent commission established to examine the innocence claims of wrongly convicted individuals. England and Wales and Scotland have long had these commissions – the Criminal Cases Review Commissions. Although they obviously have critics, these commissions have functioned effectively – miraculously from a US perspective – in independently investigating (with subpoena power) and then referring cases to the court of appeal for review.

We should re-think our opposition to establishing independent commissions that can impartially and thoroughly investigate claims of wrongful conviction. Finality is an important value, yes, and we commit a tremendous amount of resources to the pre-conviction resolution of criminal charges. But it’s important to realize that the North Carolina courts and presumably the federal courts, did nothing to correct the manifestly erroneous convictions in this case. Were it not for the Commission, the convictions would stand. Can the correction of these so manifestly erroneous North Carolina convictions rationally be seen as threatening to our finality values?

Aside from the overriding importance of freeing the wrongly convicted, the public’s perception of the justice and reliability of our criminal process is deteriorating. One of the best and probably most cost-effective way to restore it is to establish direct review innocence commissions in our states.

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