Tagged: post-conviction relief

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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The Jonathan Fleming Case: Investigation of Wrongful Conviction

With an interesting perspective on the problem of wrongful convictions, the investigators, Kim Anklin and Bob Rahn, tell the story of how they helped uncover and produce the evidence that established a wrongful conviction in Brooklyn. Take a moment to read the full article about the Jonathan Fleming case, written by one of the investigators.

Kim Anklin, The Investigation of a Wrongful Conviction: The Jonathan Fleming Case. 

Actual Innocence: Landmark Decision Changes Post-Conviction Landscape in New York

A landmark decision by the Appellate Division, Second Department has given new hope to individuals wrongfully convicted of a crime in the state of New York, and unable to obtain post-conviction relief due to the procedural restraints statutorily imposed under New York Criminal Procedure Law. On January 15, 2014,  the Appellate Court Second Department handed down its epic decision, becoming the first New York Appellate Court to recognize a freestanding claim of actual innocence, reaffirming that the incarceration of an innocent person is inherently unconstitutional.

In People v. Hamilton, the Court ruled that a defendant’s claim of actual innocence may now be recognized as a “freestanding” ground to vacate a judgment of conviction pursuant to NY CPL 440.10. (1)(h), which provides that  a court may vacate a judgement if obtained in violation of a defendant’s constitutional rights. Notably, the Court directed  that a defendant’s claim of “actual innocence”  may be pursued  independently of the other grounds for relief prescribed by New York’s post-judgement statute, and can even be supported by evidence that may fail to survive the “newly discovered” criteria imposed under NY CPL 440.10(1)(g). The Court explained that the defendant may present a claim of actual innocence based upon  new evidence, whether or not it satisfies the Salemi factors or is barred by other legal hurdles, such as prior adverse court determinations.

The Court  directed  that relief based upon an actual innocence claim should only be granted when the court is presented with clear and convincing evidence that the defendant is innocent. The court reasoned that

Mere doubt as to the defendant’s guilt, or a preponderance of conflicting evidence as to the defendant’s guilt, is insufficient, since a convicted defendant no longer enjoys the presumption of innocence, and in fact is presumed to be guilty.

The Court also explained that an exploration into the merits of a case may be necessary when a prima facie showing of actual innocence has been made by a defendant. In this case, the court found that Hamilton had made such a showing to require a hearing.

In response to the court’s decision, Derrick Hamilton, who spent 20 years in prison for murder, stated that “it is a crime that it has taken this long for me to receive a shot at justice.” Since his conviction, Hamilton had spent the last twenty two years  battling the criminal justice system in an effort  to clear his name. All prior attempts to vacate his conviction were denied, although making a credible presentation of alibi evidence, witness recantation, and possible manipulation of witnesses by police. The Hamilton case has also been vetted for  review by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, which is currently reviewing cases handled by retired detective Louis Scarcella. The Office has undertaken a review of about 50 homicide cases to determine whether the defendants were wrongfully convicted as a result of possible police misconduct.

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Battle of Experts: Controversy in Shaken Baby Case Set for NY Court

A New York court is set to hear testimony that will decide whether a shift in the medical community over the prognosis of shaken baby syndrome (“SBS”) constitutes newly discovered evidence under Article 440 of the New York Criminal Procedure Law. Supreme Court Justice James Piampiano has ordered a hearing in People v. Rene Bailey after being presented with strong evidence that the medical community’s standard for diagnosing shaken baby syndrome has significantly shifted over the years since Bailey’s conviction.

 Rene Bailey, once a daycare provider, was convicted of violently shaking a two year old child and causing severe brain injuries that resulted in the child’s death. At trial, the proof against Bailey rested primarily upon the testimony of a state medical examiner, who had claimed that the child’s internal brain injuries could only be caused by a violent shaking of the  body (SBS), and could not be attributed to any other cause known within the medical community at the time.

Contrary to the state’s medical examiner, medical experts for Bailey have now opined that a diagnosis of shaken baby syndrome should not have rested exclusively on the presentation of the child’s internal brain injuries, consisting of subdural hematoma, retinal hemorrhaging, and cerebral edema (“triad of injuries”). As of today, many members within the medical community no longer promote an exclusive diagnosis of SBS based solely upon the presentation of internal brain injuries, realizing that causes unassociated with shaking may be the root of the issue. Since Bailey’s conviction, medical studies have also shown that a child may suffer the “triad of injuries” as a result of impact to the brain caused by common short distance falls. Notably, as opined in an article by NY Times writer Emily Bazelon, some biomechanical engineers have raised doubts, [in the absence of external injuries], about whether it’s even possible to shake a baby to death.

Aside from new medical testimony, the Court will also entertain evidence that has been discovered by her attorney, Professor Adele Bernhard of New York Law School, which shows that her client may be factually innocent. The evidence presented by a new witness appears to support Bailey’s continuous declaration that she had not shaken the alleged victim, and further corroborates the observation of another child, who was present at the time of the occurrence and had initially stated to the police that the alleged victim had jumped off a chair and hit her head on the ground.  Justice Piampiano has also reserved judgment upon whether further discovery will be ordered in the matter, including whether Bailey’s request for the State to produce notes from an interview of a third child eyewitness will be granted. According to court papers, a third child may have also been present at the time of the alleged occurrence, and the child may have made exculpatory declarations to police consistent with Bailey’s version of the event  that were never disclosed to trial counsel.

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Second Circuit Upholds Right to Sue for Brady Violation after Guilty Plea

On January 16, 2014, in Poventud v. City of New York, No. 12-1011-cv, 2014 WL 182313 (2d Cir. 2014), the Second Circuit, sitting en banc, upheld the original panel’s ruling that the defendant, who served nine years in jail for a crime he probably didn’t commit, could sue the City despite the fact that he had originally pleaded guilty.  The dissenter on the original panel would have held that his Brady claim – that the police withheld information that impeached the victim’s identification – was waived by his plea, which essentially admitted he was at the scene.

In short, the Second Circuit took a very practical approach to the pressures – particularly on someone who is innocent – to plead guilty.