Tagged: innocence

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.

Related Readings:

Related Journal Articles:

Federal Judge Recommends Reform of Plea-Bargaining Process

Federal District Judge Jed S. Rakoff has a long-standing reputation for being an honest, open-minded, and fair jurist when presiding over criminal cases.   He has continually shown the courage to address some of the most profound issues within our criminal justice system, and has always taken the “high road” in doing so.  Many criminal defense practitioners have lauded Judge Rakoff’s judicial wisdom as well as his “no-nonsense” attitude when dealing with prosecutors that play fast-and-loose with their ethical obligation to disclose favorable evidence.

According to Professor Peter Widulski of Pace Law School, who once served as a law clerk for Judge Rakoff:

Judge Rakoff is one of the most brilliant and respected members of the federal bench. He is a man of the highest integrity, and his dedication to the law is a model for all jurists and lawyers. This dedication is manifested not only in his work on the bench but in the extensive teaching he has done for many years at Columbia Law School.

Recently, Judge Rakoff has proposed innovative changes to help reform the plea-bargaining process. He suggested a new process whereby magistrate judges would hear evidence and issue plea bargaining recommendations  pre-trial. Such proceedings would allow both the prosecution and defense an opportunity to present relevant facts, and to weigh-in on the evidence likely to be presented by the government at a trial.

Judge Rakoff explained that such a process would bring “plea bargaining from behind closed doors and relieve pressure on the defendants deciding whether to risk a longer sentence by heading to trial.”  He also noted that judges should become more involved in the process to protect defendants from feeling bullied into pleading guilty and help prevent overzealous prosecutors from using mandatory minimum sentences as a coercive bargaining chip.

Judge Rakoff estimates that from 1% to 8% of the prison population may be the result of false guilty pleas. He notes that the “current process is totally different from what the founding fathers had in mind.”  He explained that more needs to be done to protect innocent people from coerced pleas –as “even 0.5% [of false pleas] would total more than 10,000 [innocent] people” in prison.

In 2009, Judge Rakoff was also outspoken about sentencing inequities created by mandatory minimums for firearm offenses. In Unites States v. Ballard, Judge Rakoff refused to submit to the government’s request to impose a Guideline range sentence on non-gun counts, and to stack consecutive mandatory sentences for each firearm conviction on the defendant’s armed robbery counts. He noted that the case did not warrant the 64-year sentence advocated by the prosecution and refused to become a party to such an “unconscionable result.” He found that the imposition of a one-month sentence for the non-firearm counts was proper given the two consecutive 25-year sentences required under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c).

Judge Rakoff explained that the case was illustrative of the distorting effects of mandatory minimum sentences, given that a co-defendant was given a plea bargain excluding mandatory minimums, and obtained a sentence of 168 months in prison. He observed that the extreme sentencing disparity between the co-defendants was simply a result of one exercising his constitutional right to go to trial –while the other defendant did not. He noted that

[w]hen the letter of the law so far departs from justice as to become the instrument of brutality, common sense should call a halt.

In 2006, Judge Rakoff also took a courageous stance against the disproportional sentencing recommendations that may occasionally arise in a case under the Sentencing Guidelines.  In United States v. Adelson, Judge Rakoff imposed a non-guideline sentence of 42 months imprisonment to a defendant convicted of conspiracy, securities fraud, and the three of the false filing counts -although the Government argued that the Sentencing Guidelines, if properly calculated, called for a sentence of life imprisonment.

Judge Rakoff noted that what the case “exposed, more broadly, was the utter travesty of justice that sometimes results from the guidelines’ fetish with abstract arithmetic, as well as the harm that guideline calculations can visit on human beings if not cabined by common sense.” He concluded that “[t]his is one of those cases in which calculations under the Sentencing Guidelines lead to a result so patently unreasonable as to require the Court to place greater emphasis on other sentencing factors to derive a sentence that comports with federal law.”

It is to be hoped that all members of the Bar will rally behind Judge Rakoff to help facilitate reform to correct the injustices caused by the combination of our plea-bargaining process and harsh mandatory minimum sentencing.

A true leader of his time, “Judge Rakoff enjoys well-deserved admiration for fairness, and he has the courage and insight to address important issues of law and the administration of justice, without fear or favor” said Professor Widulski.

Related Readings:

Many Wrongful Convictions: Not So Many Answers

Recent studies have estimated that between 2.3% and 5% of all prisoners in the United States are factually innocent. According to the Innocence Project, if just 1% of all prisoners were innocent, that would mean that more than 20,000 innocent people are currently in prison. Of course, one would assume that such staggering numbers would prompt some type of national examination to determine why the criminal justice system is continually breaking down.  At the very least, the continued unveiling of wrongful convictions nationwide must lead to some type of reform that would prevent future injustices from occurring. Unfortunately, the Criminal Justice system has failed miserably in its attempts to deal with these issues, despite its realization that wrongful convictions continue to occur. As Professor Bennett L. Gershman of Pace Law School recently noted

there is hardly ever a postmortem of a derailment in the criminal justice system, as there typically is when a train derails, or a plane crashes.

Professor Gershman’s editorial, Don’t Let the Prosecutor Off the Hook, discusses how the justice system has simply forgotten to undertake its duty to determine the causes behind this tragic epidemic that has continually plagued our justice system. Citing the recent exoneration of Jonathan Fleming, who had spent 24 years in prison for a murder that he did not commit, Professor Gershman explained

Nobody, certainly nobody in the media, has attempted to examine this case more closely and to ask probing questions about how this human tragedy could have happened? We don’t investigate how criminal cases miscarried. We don’t investigate how the system malfunctioned. And we don’t investigate those officials who caused the malfunction.

Evidently, there are probably thousands of cases in which an innocent person has been convicted. Yet, the process of finding answers or solutions to the systemic flaws causing wrongful convictions has been a snail’s race.  As Professor Gershman implicitly points out, however, the prospect of finding a solution is undermined by society’s passive approach to the problem. Moreover, the likelihood of successfully confronting this important issue can never be truly realized until the wrongdoers are actually held accountable for their actions and no longer allowed “off the hook.” Of course, as Prof. Gershman notes, the first step will be to simply “ask probing questions about how this human tragedy could have happened?”

Related Readings

NY Appellate Court Upholds Vacatur of Conviction Based Upon DNA Evidence

On February 27, 2014, the NY Appellate Division, First Department, unanimously affirmed a prior judgment entered in Bronx County of New York (Clark, D.), vacating Tyrone Hicks’ conviction for Attempted Rape in the First Degree (PL § 110/130.35[1]) and Attempted Sodomy in the First Degree (PL § 110/130.50[1]), based upon his presentation of DNA evidence that had been unearthed by his lawyer, Professor Adele Bernhard of New York Law School. At trial, the only evidence linking Hicks to the crime was the uncorroborated eyewitness identification by the victim. The jury rejected Hicks’ alibi defense, which consisted of testimony from his son-in-law, who claimed that Hicks was home when the attack occurred.

In 2009, Professor Bernhard, who directs the NYLS Post-Conviction Innocence Clinic, successfully obtained testing of genetic material found under the victim’s fingernails that had been collected shortly after the crime. The results of such testing concluded that there was male genetic material recovered from the victim’s fingernail scrapings that did not match the defendant’s DNA. Professor Bernhard petitioned the court to vacate Hick’s conviction based upon both the DNA results, and the likelihood that Hicks had been misidentified as the assailant.

In vacating Hicks’ conviction, the Bronx County Court concluded that a new trial was warranted under CPL § 440.10 (1) (g), since the results of the DNA testing “could not have been discovered prior to [Hicks’] trial,” and were “unquestionably material to the issues of identity” – undermining the “sole evidence connecting [Hicks] to the crime.” The court observed that “the DNA test results ruling out the defendant’s genetic profile [had] pronounced forensic value where there [was] multiple differing descriptions of the perpetrator by the sole identifying witness and no physical evidence linking the defendant to the crime.” Id. at 4.  The court explained that the jury may have seen it to be “a particularly powerful piece of evidence, especially where the identity of [the] attacker was the primary issue at trial.”

The Appellate Court upheld the lower court’s decision to vacate the conviction based upon the defendant’s showing that the DNA results created a “reasonable probability that he would have obtained a more favorable verdict.” The Court also concluded that “the DNA evidence [was] material and exculpatory because it support[ed] identifying someone other than defendant as the attacker.” Notably, the Court rejected the government’s claim that the DNA results were cumulative, and not newly discovered under CPL 440.10 (g). Specifically, the Court noted that given the recent amendments to CPL 440.10, namely CPL 440.10 (1) (g-1), the defendant “no longer ha[d] to show that the results of [DNA] testing is newly discovered evidence in order to seek vacatur of a judgment of conviction.”

Related Readings