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.”
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?”
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) and Attempted Sodomy in the First Degree (PL § 110/130.50), 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.”
Providing compensation for wrongfully convicted individuals has been an ongoing dilemma within the United States and for governments abroad. A recent blog, Compensating Exonerees: US v. UK, by Professor Lissa Griffin of Pace Law School discusses the UK’s current struggle to articulate a standard of proof for exonerees who are seeking compensation.
- Griffin, Lissa, International Perspectives on Correcting Wrongful Convictions: The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, William & Mary Bill of Rights, Vol. 21, No. 4 (2013).
- Griffin, Lissa, Correcting Injustice: Studying How the United Kingdom and the United States Review Claims of Innocence, 41 University of Toledo Law Review 107 (Fall 2009).
- Griffin, Lissa, The Correction of Wrongful Convictions: A Comparative Perspective, 16 American University International Law Review 5 (2001).
- Wrongful conviction compensation statutes, CNN U.S. (last visited March 5, 2014).
The murder convictions of two men, Sharrif Wilson and Antonio Yarbough, were vacated by N.Y.S. Supreme Court Justice Raymond Guzman last week. The two men were 15 and 18 at the time of the murders and each had served 21 years in prison. District Attorney Ken Thompson consented to the vacatur and promptly dismissed the cases against them.
The two teenagers had been out together when Antonio Yarbrough returned home to find the grisly murder scene: his mother, young sister, and another young girl had been brutally murdered. The men consistently maintained their innocence and no physical evidence connected them to the crime. Last year, testing of material under Yarbrough’s mother’s fingernails revealed DNA that matched a subsequent rape and murder that occurred while the two were in prison. The killer remains unidentified.
- Antonio Yarbrough, Sharrif Wilson Exonerated For Triple Murder After Decades in Prison, Huffington Post (Feb. 9, 2014).
- Wrongfully Imprisoned Men Antonio Yarbough and Sharrif Wilson join “Piers Morgan Live”, Piers Morgan Live (Feb. 7, 2014).
- Haley Draznin, DNA Evidence Frees 2 Brooklyn Men Convicted in 1992 Triple Murder, CNN Justice (Feb. 6, 2014).
- Gabrielle Fonrouge, DNA Clears Men After 21 Years in Prison for Family’s Murder, New York Post (Feb. 6, 2014).
- Denis Hamill, Hamill: Tony Yarbough’s Brooklyn Murder Conviction Should be Reversed, Daily News (Jan. 19, 2014).