InnocenceProject

Va. DNA data support innocence of 33 convicted of sex crimes, study concludes


June 18, 2012 Source : http://www2.timesdispatch.com

RICHMOND, Va. —

Data from Virginia’s post-conviction DNA project support the innocence of 33 persons convicted of sexual assaults from 1973 to 1987 concludes an Urban Institute study.

Findings released today indicate more people remain to be cleared by the Virginia project, a groundbreaking effort aimed at identifying persons wrongfully convicted in the 15 years before DNA testing was widely available.

The institute estimates a wrongful conviction rate in sexual assault cases of between 8 to 15 percent, comparable with the results in sample testing that exonerated two people and prompted then-Gov. Mark R. Warner to order the full Virginia project in 2005.

Jon Gould, director, of the Washington Institute for Public and International Affairs Research at American University, said “This is the most methodologically sound study that’s been done and the rate is much higher than has been shown in other studies.”

An acknowledged weakness in the institute’s report is that the contract for the study expired before researchers could get to courthouses to review the old trial files to better determine the context and significance of the DNA results.

The institute said available information on the cases was limited to data in the old state forensic files, which mainly included basic facts about the crime and the results of the original forensic tests and the results of more recent DNA analysis.

Rockne Harmon, a former California district attorney and DNA expert, said that is a problem. He said the institute should have at least done a representative sampling of the old court files.

Among other things, rape victims are frequently asked if they had consensual sex within 72 hours of an assault. “Without this (kind of) information little can be said about the materiality of finding a matching or non-matching DNA profile,” said Harmon.

However, John Roman, the lead researcher in the project, said that even if all the court records were reviewed he would not expect many of the 33 cases to drop out.

Weaknesses or not, Steven D. Benjamin, a member of the Virginia Board of Forensic Science and president elect of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the study should set off alarm bells.

“Each defendant in the cases that support innocence should be interviewed immediately, and the case investigated thoroughly,” he said. “If any one of these 33 is innocent, each day . . . is an injustice,” said Benjamin.

The Urban Institute cannot reveal any of the identities, though many of those cases may be made public after July 1 due to recent state legislation ordering the department to release test results in cases where the convicted person’s DNA was not found.

Nearly 800 cases involving 1,100 convicted persons have been tested in the Virginia project since 2005 but only three more people have been exonerated in addition to the two cleared in sample testing seven years ago.

The Urban Institute says the Virginia data – DNA results in a random sample of suspects convicted of rape, murder and other serious crimes — is better suited for such studies on wrongful conviction rates than data in earlier studies.

“This ‘test-them-all’ approach to post-conviction DNA testing has never been replicated by any other state,” says the report.

The Virginia Department of Forensic Science said last month that testing failed to identify, or excluded, the DNA of 78 convicted defendants more than a dozen of them now dead and others not yet located.

Absence of DNA in the 78 cases can be consistent with innocence but may prove nothing. Much depends on context. Failure to find a suspect’s DNA in a cigarette butt at the scene of a rape may be irrelevant — but failure their DNA in semen can be telling.

Though unable to review old courthouse files, the institute said the Virginia data, “likely provide the best opportunity to date to understand the rate of wrongful conviction.”

“Whether the true rate of potential wrongful conviction is 8 percent or 15 percent . . . is not as important as the finding that these results require a strong and coordinated policy response,” concludes the institute report.

Brandon Garrett, a University of Virginia School of Law professor, also thinks the study needs a strong response from policy makers. “I think this report isn’t the final report, it’s just the beginning,” he said.

“There’s still a lot of (work) to do and a lot of questions that need to be answered,” said Garrett.

The Virginia Department of Forensic Science does not determine the legal significance of test results and forwarded them to local authorities where the crimes took place.

But aside from the five exonerations and several other cases, little is known of the other exclusion cases.

Critics of the Virginia effort such as Benjamin and Peter Neufeld, a cofounder of the Innocence Project, want to allow defense lawyers access to project results along with police and prosecutors.

They also urge that cases of possible wrongful convictions be pursued even where the convicted person is dead to clear their name, to make sure the guilty person is off the street and to learn what led to the wrongful conviction to help prevent future ones.

The Virginia Department of Forensic Science and the Board of Forensic Science, which considers the DNA test results criminal records, have long resisted efforts to reveal them to anyone other than law enforcement.

The convicted people were not going to be told about the testing until 2008 when the General Assembly used a budget amendment and directed they be notified.

This year the General Assembly, concerned that potential exonerations were not being adequately investigated, directed the department, effective July 1, to release the test results in cases where testing failed to find the convicted person’s DNA.

The legislators’ concern stemmed from the case of Bennett S. Barbour, of Charles City County, who was wrongly convicted of a 1978 rape in Williamsburg and was one of the people excluded by testing who could not be initially found by mail.

Testing in June 2010 cleared him and implicated a convicted rapist who will be tried for the crime in August. Barbour did not learn about the DNA testing until 18 months later when a volunteer lawyer tracked him down via telephone.

Garrett, of the University of Virginia School of Law, who urges more work be done, said, “Time will tell how many more of these cases, like Barbour’s, will result in full exonerations. Hopefully that process is moving more smoothly now.”

Methodology

Here is how the study was conducted:

The Justice Policy Center of the Urban Institute studied the test results in 634 of the Virginia cases involving 715 convicted people from 94 Virginia localities under the terms of a $4.5 million federal grant that paid for most, but not all, of the state testing.

Of the 634 cases, 422 were for sexual assault. In 227 of those cases, testing results were sufficient to either implicate or fail to find the convicted person’s DNA. And the institute believes that the testing in 33 of the exclusion cases supports innocence.

Comparing the 33 with all 422 sexual assault convictions yields an 8 percent wrongful conviction rate while comparing it to just the 227 cases where testing either implicated the convicted person or failed to find his or her DNA yields a 15 percent rate.

In 2005 the initial state sample testing of 31 cases resulted in 16 cases where the convicted person’s DNA was either identified or excluded and exonerated two men of rapes.

Comparing the two exonerations to the 31 cases yields a wrongful conviction rate of 6 to 7 percent while comparing the exonerations to the 16 cases with determinative results yields a rate of 12 to 13 percent.

According to the Urban Institute, the Justice Policy Center conducts nonpartisan research and evaluation designed to improve justice and public safety policies and practices at the national, state and local level.

 

Prosecutors often challenge DNA evidence that could clear the convicted


June 13, 2012 Source : http://www.chicagotribune.com

When Terrill Swift was released from prison after serving 15 years for rape and murder, he sought DNA testing because he wanted to prove his innocence. Cook County prosecutors opposed his efforts but relented last year after the Tribune made inquiries about Swift’s request.

After the DNA from semen in the victim’s body was matched to a convicted murderer and rapist, Swift went to court to get his conviction thrown out. But prosecutors opposed that effort, saying the DNA was meaningless, especially when considered against Swift’s confession.

A judge turned aside prosecutors’ arguments, saying the DNA was powerful evidence, and earlier this year the judge vacated Swift’s conviction.

And last month, when Swift went to court to obtain a certificate of innocence to expunge the record of his arrest and conviction and clear the way for him to seek compensation from the state, prosecutors opposed that request, too, saying Swift’s disputed confession outweighed the DNA.

Nearly a quarter-century into the DNA era, what has been called the gold standard of forensic evidence has fulfilled its promise to help police and prosecutors win convictions. Rare is the case in which DNA evidence, particularly in a rape or a murder, does not send a defendant to prison.

DNA’s potential to free the innocent has been more elusive. That has been especially true in Cook and Lake counties, where prosecutors have opposed requests for DNA testing and then downplayed the results when they excluded their leading suspects or inmates trying to win their freedom.

“When we started doing this work 20 years ago, we received opposition on requests and motions to do post-conviction DNA testing in more than three-quarters of the cases,” said Peter Neufeld, a co-founder of the New York-based Innocence Project. “Today … the overwhelming majority of prosecutors do not oppose motions for DNA testing.”

What’s more, Neufeld said, prosecutors rarely challenge DNA results that appear to indicate a suspect’s innocence. Prosecutors in Cook and Lake counties are part of a tiny group that consistently do that, he said.

“That kind of consistent rejection of logic and common sense,” Neufeld said, “is fairly unequaled around the country.”

Prosecutors counter that DNA is not the “end all” of evidence, as Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez once said, and say they are bound to consider all evidence in a case, not just the DNA. In the cases where DNA has failed to persuade prosecutors, the opposition frequently has been supported by a suspect’s confession. For decades a building block of murder cases, confessions remain remarkably potent in spite of what DNA has revealed about their frailties.

“Generally speaking, the significance of DNA evidence varies from case to case,” said Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for Alvarez. “In some cases, it may be critically important to a criminal investigation or a prosecution. In others, it can be relatively unimportant. It is the state’s attorney’s opinion and the general policy of this office that DNA evidence cannot be viewed in a vacuum, but rather examined in light of all of the other facts and evidence known at the time.

“DNA evidence certainly establishes a link between the donor of the DNA and a location or a piece of evidence, but it does not always establish the identity of the criminal,” Daly added. “The significance of DNA evidence is dependent upon all other facts available in the totality of the investigation.”

A series of cases in Lake County illustrate that standoff.

On May 15, Lake County prosecutors issued news releases announcing new murder charges in two cases — the bludgeoning of Fred Reckling, 71, in Waukegan in 1994 and the stabbings of Laura Hobbs, 8, and Krystal Tobias, 9, in Zion in 2005.

Both announcements credited “newly developed leads and forensic findings … actively pursued by law enforcement.” The releases did not mention that the new sets of charges resulted from DNA tests that prosecutors had dismissed as either unnecessary or meaningless.

In the Reckling case, prosecutors fought for years to block post-conviction testing sought by James Edwards, who had confessed and was sentenced to life in prison.

Edwards, often working as his own lawyer, claimed his innocence could be proved by testing blood found at the scene from a then-unidentified man. Prosecutors argued at trial that the blood in Reckling’s appliance store and car did not clear Edwards because it could have come from a store employee. They aimed to block post-conviction testing by noting that jurors were presented with that theory, and they still found Edwards guilty.

“Testing of this showing us who specifically (the blood came from) is not going to exculpate the defendant,” said then-Assistant State’s Attorney Michael Mermel, according to a court transcript. “The defendant is wasting the time of the criminal justice system because he has nothing else to do but write these motions.”

After Edwards had spent 14 years in prison, the Illinois Supreme Court ordered the DNA tests. Last month, prosecutors said forensic evidence had guided investigators toward Hezekiah Whitfield, 42, of Chicago, who is now charged with murder.

Prosecutors agreed to a new trial for Edwards and then immediately dropped the charges, though he remains jailed on separate convictions for armed robbery and murder.

“The Supreme Court says prosecutors have a duty to seek justice, not convictions,” said Edwards’ lawyer, Paul De Luca. “Doesn’t it seem like they didn’t abide by the rules?”

In the killing of the two girls in Zion in May 2005, lawyers for the original suspect — Jerry Hobbs, one victim’s father — clashed with prosecutors over the timeline and procedures for both sides to assess the physical evidence. Immediately after the murders, authorities sent evidence to the Northeastern Illinois Regional Crime Laboratory, where analysis with a microscope found no semen evidence that would have indicated a sexual assault, according to the lab’s report.

After Hobbs had spent more than two years in jail awaiting trial, the defense team’s scientists reported the opposite — that semen from another man had been found in Laura Hobbs and on her clothes. Hobbs’ lawyers argued this proved that his confession — given after some 24 hours of intermittent interrogation — was false. Prosecutors disagreed, arguing that the girls had been playing in the woods and the girl could have touched some semen and then wiped herself.

“The defense is … misleading the court,” Mermel said in December 2008. “What they have is one errant sperm which is impossible to deposit by the offender or an offender. It’s trace evidence.”

After that hearing, Hobbs sat in jail for more than a year before the DNA was matched to Jorge Torrez, a onetime friend of Tobias’ brother, according to court records. While Hobbs was jailed, prosecutors say, Torrez murdered a 20-year-old woman in 2009 and raped another in 2010, both in Virginia. Torrez is now serving five life sentences for a series of attacks on women, including the rape, and he faces trial in the Virginia murder case.

Hobbs was freed in August 2010, but nearly two years passed before the Lake County prosecutor’s office tacitly acknowledged his confession was false by announcing that Torrez had been charged with the girls’ murders. Mermel retired this year amid controversy over remarks he made to the media about the meaning of DNA. Lake County prosecutors could not be reached for comment. Mermel declined to comment.

Hobbs’ attorney, Kathleen Zellner, said she would like to see legislation making confessions inadmissible in court unless they can be corroborated by physical evidence. Prosecutors, she said, repeatedly have proved reluctant to admit the faults of their favorite evidentiary tools.

“(DNA) takes away the power that a prosecutor would have to develop a case around an eyewitness or a confession … and I guess there’s resistance to that,” she said.

Zellner has another client fighting his case in which DNA calls into question the conviction. Though there is no confession, prosecutors say the DNA does not persuade them of his innocence. So far they have declined to vacate the man’s conviction, although they say they are “actively investigating” the case.

Alprentiss Nash was convicted in the 1995 murder of a man named Leon Stroud during a home invasion and robbery and sentenced to 80 years in prison. Nash, according to prosecutors, put on a black ski mask before committing the crime, and the mask was found near the crime scene.

Cook County prosecutors under then-State’s Attorney Dick Devine opposed Nash’s request for testing, but the Illinois Appellate Court later ordered it. When the testing was done on skin cells found on the mask, the genetic profile was matched to an inmate who recently was paroled from prison after serving time for a drug conviction. Zellner requested additional testing, to which Alvarez’s office agreed.

In an interview at Menard Correctional Center, where he is being held, Nash, 37, said he hoped the DNA results would lead to his release.

“I’m tired of doing time,” he said of his 17 years in custody.

But Alvarez’s prosecutors argue that the DNA evidence does not clear Nash, which has frustrated him and Zellner.

“They’ve got an exclusion. They’ve got the profile of the real killer,” Zellner said. “And they’re horsing around with it.”

As fourth appeal is lost Scott Lewis asks for your help finding a new witness in 1999 murder case


May 28, 2012 Source : http://www.wxyz.com

DETROIT  – There has been another setback for a man serving life in prison for a Mother’s Day murder he says he did not commit. A judge has denied Justly Johnson’s fourth appeal, despite a new witness uncovered by the 7 Action News investigators.

Johnson’s lawyers from the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan said they are disappointed but determined to press forward to the Michigan Court of Appeals.

Last December, the 7 Action News Investigators tracked down a new witness in the 1999 Mother’s Day murder of Lisa Kindred , the crime Johnson is serving a life sentence for.  Investigator Scott Lewis located her son, C.J. Skinner, who was with his mother in her minivan when a man walked up and shot her.

Skinner, who was eight years old at the time, talked with Lewis in a phone interview from Pennsylvania, where he is also serving time in prison. Skinner told Lewis that he saw what happened the night his mother was murdered and he would never forget the gunman’s face.

Did the police ever question you?” Lewis asked Skinner.

“Never,” he replied.

“Never looked at a photo line-up?” Lewis asked.

“Never,” Skinner said.

Skinner described a lone gunman who looked nothing like Justly Johnson or the second man convicted, Kendrick Scott.

Lawyers from the Michigan Innocence Clinic took that information and other new evidence they uncovered to Judge Prentiss Edwards asking for a new hearing. But the judge rejected their request as he has three times in the past.

Judge Edwards has declined to be interviewed about the case.

“Suffice it to say we don’t think the judge gave any legally adequate reason to not at least hold a hearing on all of the evidence, and especially the new testimony from C.J. (Skinner),” said attorney David Moran, co-director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic.

Lawyers from the Innocence Clinic have stated in court records that police overlooked the most likely suspect back in 1999, Lisa Kindred’s husband Will who had a history of domestic violence and threats against his wife and kids.

Detroit police never discovered Kindred’s history of violence.  It was uncovered years after Johnson and Scott’s convictions by lawyers from the Wisconsin Innocence Project. The Wisconsin lawyers originally took on Johnson’s case and are still involved in efforts to win a new trial for him.

Will Kindred has denied any involvement in the murder during conversations with 7 Action News Investigator Scott Lewis.

In their latest appeal lawyers from the Michigan Innocence Clinic also argued Johnson’s conviction was tainted by what is known as a Brady violation. A Brady violation occurs when the prosecution withholds important information from the defense during a trial.

In this case, attorneys argued, police were given information by Lisa Kindred’s sister that pointed toward Will Kindred as a suspect, but that information was not passed on to Johnson’s defense attorney.

Judge Edwards rejected that claim as well, saying that while police did not turn the information over to defense attorneys they did not share it with the prosecuting attorney either.

“That’s a mistake because under the law if the police have the information it has to be turned over to the defense even if they haven’t turned it over to the prosecutor,” Moran said.

Innocence lawyers from Michigan and Wisconsin have been on this case for years and have now taken on an appeal for Scott , the second man convicted. Both men were convicted primarily on testimony of two young men who later recanted and said they were pressured by police to implicate Johnson and Scott in the murder.

A series of reports in the Detroit Free Press documented how police were using pressure tactics to solve homicides during the 1990’s and the news reports became a factor in the U.S. Justice Department taking control of the Detroit Police Department in a consent decree that is still in place to this day.

Moran said the evidence of Johnson and Scott’s innocence is compelling and he believes the two men deserve a judicial review of new information that has come to light.

“We just want to get a hearing in some court so we can present this new evidence and let a judge, any judge, decide whether this merits a new trial,” Moran stated.

Moran said if the Innocence Clinic eventually exhausts all of its appeals in state court they will take the case to the Federal District Court for a last-ditch effort known as a habeas petition.

Meanwhile, 7 Action News Investigator Scott Lewis, who has been looking into the case for nearly two years, continues to search for new evidence.

Lewis is currently trying to locate a man who lived on the Bewick Street where Lisa Kindred was shot and killed back in 1999 .  The man is known only by his street name, Tone.

Witnesses told Lewis that Tone was on the street shortly before Kindred was shot telling people to get back in their houses because “something was about to go down.”

According to witnesses, Tone was related to Antonio Burnette, one of two

prosecution witnesses who implicated Johnson and Scott in the murder. There is no evidence in the hundreds of police records reviewed by 7 Action News that Detroit Police ever questioned Tone.

Lewis was told by people who lived in the neighborhood that the man known as Tone left the State of Michigan shortly after the murder and never returned. 

The 7 Action News Investigators are trying to find out Tone’s first and last name hoping to track him down and find out what, if anything, he knows about the 1999 murder.

If you have any information on this case, contact The Investigators by calling 248-827-9252, or send an email to tips@wxyz.com .

After 20 years in prison, man cleared in ’86 Waukegan rape – Bennie Starks


may 15, 2012  Source : http://www.chicagotribune.com

Starks case dismissed

Lake County prosecutors have dropped rape charges against Bennie Starks, who spent 20 years in prison before DNA pointed away from him.

Assistant State’s Attorney Jim Newman appeared at a brief hearing and dropped the sexual assault charges.

“He is a free man and he is not guilty,” said Starks’ lawyer, Jed Stone.

Starks, dressed in a burgundy sport coat and black and white checked shirt, accepted a hug around the shoulder from another of his lawyers, Vanessa Potkin from the New York-based Innocence Project.

“This has been a great day,” Starks said.

As to his plans, he said, “Spend time with my grandkids and just…living.”

Starks, 52, of Chicago was convicted in 1986 of raping a 69-year-old woman in Waukegan. He was in the middle of a 60-year sentence when the appeals court ordered a new trial in 2006 and he was released on bond. As with three other recent Lake County cases, prosecutors insisted on his guilt even after DNA pointed toward someone else as the attacker.

The possibility of a retrial had been thrown into doubt by court rulings barring prosecutors from using the testimony of the victim, who identified Starks as the rapist.

She died several years ago, and a Lake County judge ruled in January 2011 that prosecutors could not use her past testimony at the retrial.

The state appeals court affirmed that decision in February, writing that Starks’ lawyers would not have a fair shot at cross-examining her and holding that the original cross-examination was inadequate.

Since February’s ruling, Starks has waited to learn whether prosecutors planned to retry him.

After the conflicting DNA evidence became public in the early 2000s, prosecutors responded much as they did to other cases involving forensic evidence suggesting a suspect’s innocence.

Prosecutors argued that the DNA did not clear Starks because the woman could have had consensual sex with someone else, although she said at trial she had not had sex in the weeks before the attack.

The woman identified him as the man who pulled her into a ravine and beat, bit and raped her. A dentist said bite marks on the victim matched Starks, and his jacket was found at the scene.

Starks said the jacket and money were stolen from him after he passed the evening in a local tavern, and the defense attorneys have called the scientific rigor of the bite-mark evidence into question.

In the early 2000s, testing turned up a genetic profile from another man on the victim’s underwear. Later, testing on a vaginal swab found DNA that didn’t come from Starks, and the appeals court ordered a new trial in 2006.

This morning, it first appeared that Starks’ wait to have his name cleared might continue.

Newman, the assistant state’s attorney, surprised Starks’ defense lawyers at the start of today’s hearing when, instead of immediately dropping the charges, he asked for a continuance while the appeals court considers Stark’s challenge to his battery conviction. Starks hopes to see that conviction — which stems from the same crime — wiped from his record.

Without pause, Judge John Phillips tersely declined that request and told prosecutors to make a decision on retrying Starks immediately. Newman left court for a few minutes to consult with his superiors, then returned to begin filling out paperwork for Starks’ case before the judge returned.

Stone, one Starks lawyers, approached Newman as he filled out a court form and smiled as he said, “That’s N-O-L-L-E,” a reference to the Latin phrase, nolle prosequi, which indicates a prosecutor is dropping charges.

When Phillips returned, Newman dropped the charges and hurried from the courtroom. He declined to comment on the decision.

US – Free After 25 Years: A Tale Of Murder And Injustice – Michael Morton


April 30 Source : http://www.npr.org

The past few years in Texas have seen a parade of DNA exonerations: more than 40 men so far. The first exonerations were big news, but the type has grown smaller as Texans have watched a dismaying march of exonerees, their wasted years haunting the public conscience.

Yet a case in Williamson County, just north of Austin, is raising the ante. Michael Morton had been sentenced to life in prison for murdering his wife. He was released six months ago — 25 years after being convicted — when DNA testing proved he was not the killer.

Instead of merely seeking financial compensation, Morton is working to fix the system. His lawyers, including The Innocence Project, want to hold the man who put him behind bars accountable. They also want new laws to make sure Morton’s story is never repeated.

The Day Of The Murder

On the morning of Aug. 13, 1986, Morton was getting ready for work as head of the pharmacy department at a nearby Safeway in Austin. He closed the door to his home, blissfully unaware that the next time he saw his wife of seven years she would be in a coffin. Morton had nine hours of his normal life left. The clock ran out after work, when he arrived to pick up his son from day care.

“First time I figured something was up was when I locked eyes with the baby sitter,” he says. “She looked at me real weird, like, ‘What are you doing here? Eric’s not here, why are you here?’ ”

Morton was immediately worried and called home. The man who answered was Williamson County Sheriff Jim Boutwell. The sheriff refused to answer Morton’s questions and told him to come home immediately. Morton drove there in a panic.

“There were a lot of cars in the street. There was a big yellow crime-scene ribbon around our house,” he says. “Neighbors were across the street, clustered on the corner … talking to each other, and of course, when my truck comes racing up, they all kind of key on me.”

Boutwell met Morton outside the front door and, in front of everyone, bluntly told him Christine Morton was dead, murdered in their bedroom. Morton reeled.

“You really don’t know how you’re going to react until it happens to you, and with me, I remember it was as if I was … falling inside myself,” he says.

Morton was stunned, nearly mute, which fueled the sheriff’s suspicions and became a major prosecution touchstone at his trial. The fact that Morton didn’t cry out or weep became evidence that he didn’t love his wife and had killed her.

Boutwell took Morton into the living room, his wife’s body still down the hall. For the next four hours, Morton answered every question the sheriff could think of and never once asked for a lawyer.

“In my mind, I knew that, ‘OK, he’s doing his job. You have to eliminate the suspects, so he’s got to tick off these certain questions and get rid of me as a suspect and get on with this thing,’ ” he says.

The ‘Evidence’

Morton was wrong. Boutwell had already decided that Morton was his No. 1 one suspect. The previous day had been Morton’s birthday, and the family had gone out for a nice dinner. After getting home and putting Eric to bed, Morton was hoping for a “happy ending” with his wife. That’s not what happened, though, and Morton’s feelings were hurt. He wrote her something the next morning before he left for work.

Chris, I know you didn’t mean to, but you made me feel really unwanted last night. After a good meal, we came home, you binged on the rest of the cookies, then you farted and fell asleep. I’m not mad. I just wanted you to know how I feel without us getting into a fight about sex. Just think how you’d feel if you were left hanging on your birthday. I love you.”

This note, left on the couple’s bathroom mirror, turned out to be Morton’s doom.

Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson used it to weave a sensational tale of unspeakable violence. In Anderson’s version of the crime, Morton used a wooden club to viciously bludgeon his wife’s head because she wouldn’t have sex with him. Then, in triumph over her body, he pleasured himself. The mild-mannered pharmacy manager was transformed into a sexually sick, murderous psychopath.

It was all a prosecutorial fantasy; none of it was true. Yet Anderson pounded his fists into his hands and wept to the jury as he described Morton’s perversity. Compared with this vivid picture of the crime, Morton’s defense didn’t have a lot to offer.

“The defense was that [Morton] didn’t do it, and we don’t know who did it. But whoever did it snuck in and committed a really vicious, vicious murder,” says Bill Anderson, now a criminal law professor at the University of Texas who was Morton’s lawyer in 1986. “And that is very frightening. A jury, by convicting [Morton], makes themselves safe. They’ve solved the case and they can go on about their business.”

What the jury and the defense lawyers didn’t know about was the evidence that had been concealed by Williamson County law enforcement. Only the sheriff’s office and the district attorney knew about it.

Undisclosed Information

For the past eight years, John Raley, of the Houston firm Raley & Bowick, has spent thousands of hours pro bono as Morton’s lawyer. “There were fingerprints on the sliding glass door, and there were fingerprints on the luggage that was piled on Christine Morton’s body,” he says. That’s not all: A neighbor told police that she’d seen a man in a green van casing the Morton home. Repeatedly.

“The neighbors report that they had seen a strange van driving around the neighborhood, stopping around the Morton house. The man in the van would drive around back to the wooded area and walk into the wooded area in back,” Raley says. “The interesting thing is, it’s around that area where the bandanna that contains the DNA was eventually found.”

A bloody bandanna had been found by a deputy behind the Morton home. Incredibly, the sheriff’s office decided to ignore it and left it lying on the ground.

Read full article (pictures, listen the story)  : click here 

Why is Alabama opposing DNA testing?


March 28, 2012  source :http://socialistworker.org

why is Alabama opposing DNA testing?

Rebekah Skelton reports on a case where an Alabama man’s life is at stake.

March 28, 2012

Alabama death row prisoner Thomas ArthurAlabama death row prisoner Thomas Arthur

THOMAS ARTHUR has been on Alabama’s death row for 30 years. He was convicted of killing Troy Wicker in 1982, but has always maintained his innocence. Recently, a federal appeals court stayed Arthur’s March 29 execution date over an issue about lethal injection, though that stay could be lifted at any time.

The real question, however, remains this: Will Thomas Arthur be executed in Alabama without being allowed to have DNA testing that could prove his innocence?

There is a piece of evidence, an “Afro wig” worn by Wicker’s killer as a disguise, that could be tested for Arthur’s DNA. The wig has already been tested once for DNA, after another Alabama prisoner, Bobby Ray Gilbert, confessed to Wicker’s murder in 2008. However, the testing was inconclusive–there wasn’t a match for Gilbert or Arthur.

Ultimately, the original judge decided that Gilbert’s confession wasn’t credible, and despite a lack of other physical evidence tying Arthur to the crime, she recommended that the Alabama Supreme Court deny Arthur’s appeal, which it did.

Now, Arthur’s defense team is asking for a more advanced DNA test, called a mini-STR DNA analysis, on the wig, but Alabama’s attorney general is fighting the request–arguing that this test wouldn’t be any more accurate than the previous one. On top of that, there is no law guaranteeing Arthur the right to further DNA testing.

“I am outraged that there is physical evidence that, if DNA-tested, would prove my father’s guilt or innocence conclusively. This testing could be done prior to his execution and would be paid for by the law firm handling his case,” said Arthur’s daughter Sherrie Stone. “If we are to continue executions in this country, laws must be put in place in which DNA testing must be allowed at all stages of the process. There is a chance we are executing innocent people. I know because my father is one of those people.”

If the lawyers have offered to pay for the testing, what could possibly be the problem? If the test shows that Arthur’s innocent, the state of Alabama can rest easy knowing they didn’t condemn an innocent man to death. And if it show’s he’s guilty, it would only affirm what the state has already convicted him of, at no cost to them.

However, as Andrew Cohen pointed out in a February article in The Atlantic, the general consensus among prosecutors and judges is to value “finality” in cases, rather than “accuracy.” Sharon Keller, the presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, outlined this position in a 2000 “Frontline” interview, saying, “We can’t give new trials to everyone who establishes, after conviction, that they might be innocent. We would have no finality in the criminal justice system, and finality is important.”

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IT SHOULD be clear to anyone with a conscience that if there’s even a small chance that someone might be innocent after being convicted, the court should do everything in its power to ensure they have the right person–especially when someone’s life is at stake.

But lately, prosecutors have been fighting harder than ever to keep defendants from having access to post-conviction DNA testing. Hank Skinner has been on Texas death row since 1995. His case has many similarities to Arthur’s, such as DNA evidence the court is denying him the right to have tested and a heavy emphasis on an eyewitness who at one point or another recanted.

“Since these guys are on their electoral deadlines, their finality has nothing to do with accuracy,” said Skinner’s wife Sandrine Ageorges-Skinner. “You can’t rush justice.”

The goal of any justice system has to be to find the truth. As Sandrine said, since no justice system is ever going to be infallible–there have been 289 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the U.S., according to the Innocence Project–prosecutors and judges must be willing to admit that they might have convicted the wrong person.

Post-conviction DNA testing must be granted to prisoners whose guilt is questionable–o matter what the cost, and especially when it could be an innocent person who’s paying the ultimate price.

First published at The New Abolitionist.