Tagged: wrongful incarceration

#TheSyndromeFilm: Shaken Baby Syndrome Documentary and Wrongful Convictions

The Syndrome_IG copy smWe are pleased to join investigative reporter Susan Goldsmith and filmmaker Meryl Goldsmith in announcing that their powerful film on shaken baby syndrome, “The Syndrome” will be available everywhere on video on demand starting April 15, 2016. iTunes, DirecTV, In Demand (cable outlets), Amazon Instant and so many more are all distributing the film.

An estimated 1,000 innocent people are currently incarcerated based on doctors diagnosing shaken baby syndrome, a child abuse theory that has been disavowed as “junk science.” The prosecutions, false allegations and devastation of innocent peoples’ lives continues even as the science has dissolved.

Several years ago, in England, the prosecution re-examined a series of its shaken baby convictions and re-evaluated its policies and procedures for handling such cases.  Interestingly, the new wrongful conviction integrity unit in the LA County District Attorney’s Office told California Public Radio that they plan to review shaken baby cases.

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Massive DNA Evidence Review in Texas

The Houston Chronicle reports that in Texas

thousands of cases are being reviewed for testimony about DNA odds that may have been given using outdated guidelines that inflated the likelihood a defendant had touched a murder weapon or another piece of evidence.

Developments in DNA technology had revolutionized the use of DNA evidence in criminal trials and had played a major role in the efforts to uncover wrongful convictions.

Although those involved in innocence litigation know that Texas has a very bad record in wrongful convictions, particularly based on DNA,  in the words of Barry Scheck (a co-founder of the Innocence Project), “Texas is the only place that’s systematically trying to correct it.”

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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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Related Journal Articles:

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.