A wrongful conviction occurs when an individual is pronounced guilty of a crime which he or she did not actually commit and consequently sentenced either to serve time in prison or consigned to death row to await his or her execution date. When the first cases of wrongful convictions came to light with the advent of DNA forensics, the immediate public reaction was to conclude that the country’s justice system is not, after all, perfect. Initial reactions varied for the different sectors of society. For the average American, the possibility that the system could have been corrupted ever since its inception raised a general fear that many innocent Americans might have already been actually executed because of this imperfect American criminal justice system before post-conviction DNA evidence started exonerating some of these innocent people.
Unfortunately for many of those who were already convicted, not all pre-DNA era cases could be adequately reviewed for the purpose of weeding out possible wrongful convictions because of several reasons. First, important evidence and data were found to have shrunk with the passing of time; important files were lost or misplaced; many of the parties who were involved in the cases have already died and therefore could no longer be reached for the purpose of holding new trials; and the memories of those who are still living have simply faded over time. These factors have made it very difficult for the interested parties to gather “detailed information about the characteristics of these cases” (National Institute of Justice, 2009).
On the other hand, the tendency of the more objective sectors of society had been to revisit the system and understand how it really works in order to identify its imperfect components. The objective was to isolate the causes of wrongful convictions and introduce changes wherever necessary so that wrongful convictions could, at least, be prevented in the future. The sad fact remains, however, that regardless of an individual American’s initial reaction, a wrongful conviction could only result from the abject failure of the American justice system. The sadder fact likewise remains that the possibility that some of those who were already executed as a result of the implementation of the death penalty could have been law-abiding Americans who did not commit any crime but were nevertheless victimized not only by the imperfect criminal justice system of the country but by those unscrupulous individuals who unabashedly exploited the situation
The U.S. Criminal Justice System
In order to understand how wrongful convictions took place in spite of the efforts of the founding fathers to protect every American’s basic rights, it is best to take a more critical look at how the criminal justice system operates. Generally, the system deals with incidents of crime using an established set of rules and procedures. These rules and procedures govern the investigation process; guide the prosecution of people who are charged with crimes; and serve as basis for the judges of the different courts as well as the people who are serving in the juries in the decisive process of determining the guilt or innocence of the accused. When the primary elements of the criminal justice system (the police, the prosecutors, the defense counsel, and the court) adhere to these rules and procedures as mandated by law, a “due process” is observed (Macionis, 2006).
Due process guarantees that the criminal justice system, or those mandated with its implementation, do not operate outside the limits of law. This is in compliance with the Bill of Rights which guarantees constitutional protection to Americans who are charged with committing various crimes. These basic constitutional guarantees are the right to be represented by a lawyer; the right against self-incrimination (the accused could not be forced to testify against him/herself), the right to face one’s accuser/s in open court (against secret trials), the right to be protected against double jeopardy (the accused could not be tried twice for the same offense after being found innocent), and the basic freedom against deprivation of “life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” These rights are incorporated in the American Bill of Rights (Macionis, 2006).
Specifically, due process means that when an individual is charged with any crime, he or she should be entitled to: “fair notice of the proceedings; a hearing on the charges conducted according to law and with the ability to present a defense; and a judge or jury that weighs evidence in an impartial way” (Inciardi, 2000 as cited in Macionis, 2006). In other words, as soon as a charge is brought against a particular individual, he or she has the right to first be informed about such charges before the proceedings could go any farther. Then a fair trial should be conducted wherein the accused is allowed every opportunity of presenting evidence and witnesses for the purpose of proving his or her innocence. Due process also dictates that the judge who would be presiding over the hearings should be impartial while the jury that would be determining the innocence or guilt of the accused should be chosen from the members of the community who are not only free of any bias but who are expected to judge the merits of the case based on the common-sense judgment of an average American (Macionis, 2006).
The first element of the criminal justice system is the police. The members of the police forces all over the country are charged with enforcing the law for the purpose of maintaining order in the community. This duty not only makes them the community’s first contact with the criminal justice system of the country, but also the people who start the wheels of justice rolling by acting on the complaints and reports filed by the citizens of their jurisdictions, responding to urgent calls for assistance, and investigating crimes. Hence, any investigation on the failings of the criminal justice system should reasonably start with how police officers do their jobs. (Macionis, 2006).
The task of evaluating the performance of police officers should always start with the premise that they have always been greatly outnumbered vis a vis the community that they serve. In view of this constraint, one should consider the fact that they are always faced with the problem of effectively managing their time and efficiently allocating their limited resources (especially manpower), if they would like to perform their duties and responsibilities satisfactorily. Doing so means that police officers always need to rely on their personal judgment in order to be able to come up with fast decisions as far as the question of identifying “which situations require their [immediate] attention and how to handle them” is concerned (Macionis, 2006). Given such a situation, it would seem logical for an observer to assume that in spite of their training and experience, they are nevertheless prone to commit errors of judgment. When one adds the feeling of frustration sometimes felt by the more zealous police officers into the equation, their tendency to err becomes more realistic.
How police officers cope has already been researched. In two studies which were conducted in 1981 and 1987, Douglas Smith and Christy Visher came up with the conclusion that police officers, in order to be able to act with the required speed, usually judge situations based on six factors. First, they concluded that arrests are often dictated by the gravity of the situation. In other words, the more serious the situation is, the more likely for police officers to make arrests. Second, before making any arrest, the police officers on the scene usually consider the wishes of the victim. This means that when the victim is not interested in any arrest, police officers are also not inclined to make any. Third, police officers are more likely to take uncooperative suspects into custody. In other words, when suspects become cooperative, police officers tend to believe that they are innocent of any complicity in the crime. Fourth, when several people are being considered as suspects, the tendency of police officers is to arrest the person with a previous conviction because they believe that a person who had already committed a crime is more likely to be guilty than those who have not yet been convicted for any offense. Fifth, when the incident takes place in a crowded place, the tendency for arrests to be made becomes stronger. This is because police officers want to “move the encounter from the street (the suspect’s turf) to the police department (where law officers have the edge). “ This is their way of controlling the situation. Finally, police officers have shown a tendency to arrest colored people because of a perception that Blacks or Hispanics are more likely to commit crimes than white people (Macionis, 2006).
Police officers are not only pressed by time and circumstance to always act swiftly and decisively in reacting to crime but are also required to work within the limits set by law in collecting evidence for the purpose of solving crimes. They are bound by the provisions of the Constitution, specifically the Fourth Amendment, which safeguards the right of the people to protect their property from being trespassed or encroached upon by others. This amendment had its legal basis in the English laws, particularly in Entick v. Carrington where Lord Camden declared that “By the laws of England, every invasion of private property, be it ever so minute, is a trespass. No man can set foot upon my ground without my licence but he is liable to an action though the damage be nothing…” In essence, what Lord Camden was saying was that a person who enters another’s property is guilty of trespass even if he or she takes nothing or causes no damage to the property in question (FOURTH AMENDMENT: Search and Seizure, n.d.).
The private property protection accorded by the Fourth Amendment is specifically applicable to situations where police officers need to conduct search and seizure proceedings for the purpose of acquiring evidence to be used in prosecuting criminal offenders. Specifically, the Fourth Amendment provides that
the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated; and no Warrants shall issue but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized (Reeves and Komanapalli, 2008).
Because of the provisions of the Fourth Amendment, police officers are only allowed to conduct their search and seizure proceedings under the authority of a search warrant obtained from the court. For its part, the court could only approve an application for a search warrant after being properly convinced that there is “probable cause” for the issuance of such a warrant so that police officers could gather evidence to solve a crime. In other words, before a search warrant could be granted, the judge should be convinced of the probability that a crime is actually being committed in the place sought to be searched, or that the perpetrator and/or vital evidence of a crime which was committed earlier could be found in such a place. A search warrant, therefore, is meant to allow police officers to legally seize evidence so that they would be admissible in court (FOURTH AMENDMENT: Search and Seizure, n.d.).
A search warrant has to conform to a specific requirement in order to be valid. It should specifically identify the particular evidence that would be seized as well as the possible places where such evidence could be found. This is referred to as the “element of particularity” and is meant to limit the scope of the search and prevent instances of harassment or aggravated searches. Simply put, the content of the warrant serves as a restriction and a departure from this principle of particularity could invalidate the search warrant and render the evidence seized inadmissible in court. For example, if police officers are searching for a certain coat, it would not be logical for them to look inside a small jewelry box. First, such a small container could not possibly hold a coat. Second, people do not normally keep their coats in jewelry boxes. A case in point was Stanford v. Texas where police officers obtained a warrant to seize books and other printed matters “concerning the Communist Party of Texas.” The warrant was later invalidated because of two violations. First, the enforcing officers took with them more than 2,000 materials. Second, they searched the person of everybody in the place in spite of the fact that the warrant only authorized them to arrest and search the person of a specific individual. Because of these violations, the evidence seized during the operation was ruled inadmissible in court (FOURTH AMENDMENT: Search and Seizure, n.d.).
On the other hand, although evidence seized by police officers without the authority of a search warrant could not be admissible in court, the law allowed certain exemptions so that material evidence could be collected without a search warrant. Some of these exemptions or authorized warrantless searches are: “consent search, detention short of arrest: stop and frisk, plain view doctrine, open fields doctrine, and search incident to an arrest” (Findlaw for legal professionals, 2009). A consent search simply means that the individual voluntarily waives his or her right under the Fourth Amendment to allow police officers to search his or her home even without a search warrant. The operative word being voluntary, police officers should prove that the consent was granted by the legal occupant of the house or residence voluntarily and not a result of duress. For instance, duress results when a police officer introduces him/herself and demands to be granted entry for the purpose of searching the house. On the other hand, the consent to search obtained by an undercover agent is considered voluntary because the owner of the house did not recognize him or her to be a police officer (Findlaw for legal professionals, 2009).
An individual could be detained and frisked for evidence without a search warrant if police officers could prove that they have actually witnessed said individual in the act of committing a crime. Mere suspicion would not suffice, however, since suspicion would not establish probable cause that the individual in question has committed or is about to commit a crime. However, a decision reached in Terry v. Ohio in 1968 authorized police officers to conduct an “on-the-street investigation” if, based on their training and experience, they suspect that certain individuals are armed and are about to commit a crime. In such a situation, police officers are allowed to perform a “weapons frisk” for the purpose of uncovering a concealed weapon (Findlaw for legal professionals, 2009).
Plain view doctrine means that the owner of a contraband which could be “lawfully observed” by a police officer has already lost his or her privacy interest in said item. Under this doctrine, when the police officer was legally in the place when he or she has seen the contraband, said contraband could be seized without a warrant and used as evidence against the owner as long as there is probable cause that said object is contraband (Cornell University Law School, n.d.). For instance, when a police officer entered a dwelling in response to a call for help from a woman who was getting a beating from her husband, said officer had a legal reason to be in said dwelling. Any object in his plain view while he or she was inside the dwelling could therefore be seized as evidence provided that said officer strongly believes, based on his or her training and experience, that the object was undoubtedly contraband.
Open fields doctrine, on the other hand, refers to a situation where an object is found out of doors where it could be easily observed by anyone who is simply standing on his or her foot, from a low-flying aircraft, or from inside any motor vehicle. In such a situation, the owner of said object could not seek the privacy protection provided by the Fourth Amendment. The open fields doctrine covers such places as a fenced-in dwelling unit if the fence is low enough so that anybody has a clear view of the fenced-in ground without standing on his or her toes or atop any other object, or could easily peep through cracks in the fence. Open fields doctrine also covers sidewalks, streets, outdoor fields, and bodies of water (Cornell University Law School, n.d.).
Meanwhile, a search incident to an arrest takes place when a police officer is arresting a suspect under the authority of a warrant of arrest. In this situation, the arresting officer is allowed to search the suspect to prevent him or her from reaching for a weapon and endanger the officer’s life or destroy material evidence that could be used against him or her in court. However, the scope of such a warrantless search became debatable. In Harris v. United States [331 U.S. 145 (1947)], the Supreme Court ruled that the search of a whole four-room apartment was legal because the suspect was arrested inside said apartment pursuant to an arrest warrant. A contradictory ruling, however, was handed down by the Court in United States v. Rabinowitz [339 U.S. 56 (1950)]. In that case, the Court ruled that the search of an entire office was not legal even though the suspect was arrested inside the office with the aid of a warrant of arrest. The issue, however, was finally settled in Chimel v. California [395 U.S. 752 (1969)] when the Court limited the warrantless search incident to an arrest to the person and the reach of the arrestee. The Court stated that “There is ample justification … for a search of the arrestee’s person and the area ‘within his immediate control’ – construing that phrase to mean the area from within which he might gain possession of a weapon or destructible evidence.” The ruling further stated that any rooms or areas other than the room where the arrest was made (referring to Harris v. United States) and all the closed drawers of the desk in the room where the arrest was made (referring to United States v. Rabinowitz) which are beyond the reach of the suspect could only be searched with the aid of a valid search warrant (Findlaw for legal professionals, n.d.).
The primary duty of the court is the conduct of a proper trial where the innocence or guilt of the defendant is determined. The presiding judge relies on a process which is adversarial in nature to hear any case brought before him. An adversarial process means that the case is heard with two sides – the prosecution and the defense – arguing their cases and presenting their evidence before the judge whose primary responsibility is to ascertain that a legal proceeding is observed. After the prosecutor and the defense rest their cases, the presiding judge (in the case of a bench trial) or the jury (in the case of a jury trial), deliberates on the merits of the case and decides whether to return a “guilty” or a “not guilty” verdict. Recently, however, the function of the court has been reduced significantly in about 90 percent of the criminal cases because of the rise in “plea bargaining” – a practice which results in convictions after defendants plead guilty before their cases reach the court (Macionis, 2006).
However, the courts, or the judges for that matter, are already involved in the criminal justice system earlier than the proper courtroom trial. In fact, a judge is already involved in the first step of the criminal investigation. This is because police officers could not conduct legal arrests and search and seizure proceedings without a valid warrant duly approved by a judge. A judge is required to exercise prudence in deciding whether probable cause exists to justify the issuance of a warrant. After every arrest, the next duty of a judge is to preside over a bail hearing to decide whether to allow a suspect to secure his or her temporary liberty by posting a bail. A bail hearing is also held for the purpose of revoking an existing bail when it could be proven that said suspect violated certain provisions set down during the bail hearing. For instance, when the conditions of the bail prohibits the suspect from leaving the state, doing so could cause the judge to revoke his or her bail and return the suspect to the custody of the police pending his or her trial (Meyer and Grant, 2003).
A preliminary hearing is conducted before the proper trial wherein the evidence so far gathered is evaluated to enable the judge to determine whether the holding of a proper trial is justifiable. After the preliminary hearing comes the pre-trial conference where the motions filed by both the prosecution and the defense are heard concerning the venue of the trial as well as the types of evidence that could be included or excluded during the proper trial. Then before a proper trial could be scheduled, the judge has to decide whether or not to approve a plea bargaining agreement (specifically a sentence bargain) if one was negotiated between the prosecutor and the defendant. In other words, if a plea bargaining agreement gets approved, no trial occurs. Otherwise, the judge immediately schedules a proper trial for the case (Meyer and Grant, 2003).
Just like police officers, judges are not free to do whatever they want. A “Code of Conduct for United States Judges” was formulated for the sole purpose of governing their actions in and out of the courtroom. A judge who adheres to the Code is not only considered effective but also moral while he who violates the canons of the Code is deemed ineffectual and undeserving of the trust and confidence of the people of the United States. The first canon requires that “A judge should uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary.” He or she should not only take active part in the establishment and maintenance of high standards of ethical conduct but should also lead in their enforcement by personally adhering to the same. However, although the Code requires that judges maintain their independence, they are also called upon to base their decisions on the letters of the law. This canon had been formulated because it is widely believed that the confidence of the people on the judiciary could only be maintained by having honest and independent judges (Code of Conduct for United States Judges, 1973).
According to the second canon, “A judge should avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all activities.” This means that a judge should not only respect the law but should also see to it that the members of his or her family as well as his or her friends do not exert influence on his or her judgment. A judge is also discouraged from joining any associations which are guilty of discriminatory practices against people based on race, gender, religious beliefs, or national origin. The third canon, on the other hand, requires a judge to “perform the duties of the office impartially and diligently.” This means that a judge should treat everybody equally in the eyes of the law and should accept and try every case assigned him or her unless disqualified for any valid and legal reason (Code of Conduct for United States Judges, 1973).
Meanwhile, canon four allows a judge to participate in “extra-judicial activities” only if such activities are aimed at enriching the legal system of the country and improving the general administration of justice. The fifth canon, on the other hand, serves to regulate the fourth canon. While it is true that a judge is allowed to be involved in meaningful “extra-judicial activities,” he or she is dictated by the fifth canon to see to it that such activities do not get in conflict with his or her judicial duties. The sixth canon requires a judge to report his or her earnings on a regular and accurate manner, both for “law-related and extra-judicial activities.” Judges are also prohibited from receiving any undeserved compensation for any activities because doing so would be improper and inappropriate. The final canon enjoins a judge to refrain from engaging in any political undertaking. This rule prohibits a judge from doing any of the following: holding any position in any political organization; delivering speeches in behalf of any political organization; making contributions to and/or soliciting funds for any political organization; endorsing or opposing publicly any candidate for any elective office in government; and attending any type of gathering and function conducted by or for any political organization. If any judge wishes to become a candidate for public office, he or she should first resign from office (Code of Conduct for United States Judges, 1973).
The various states and cities have dealt with ineffective judges differently and have also endorsed different proposals on how to raise their respective judges’ level of performance. Some states have been making use of surveys and performance evaluations in order to rate how their judges perform and utilize the results as bases of their future actions. In Reno, for instance, a proposal was formulated to have ineffective judges voted out of office in future elections while a Colorado proposal moved for a reduction in the term limits of ineffective judges. Meanwhile, in at least fifteen states, performance evaluations were already conducted, the results of which were submitted to the states’ decision-makers (Elliott, 2008).
The most powerful official of the country’s criminal justice system appears to be the prosecutor primarily because of his or her “power to charge” as well as the authority to initiate plea bargaining agreements. This dual power enables a prosecutor to steer criminal cases towards the direction that he or she prefers. These powers have been rendered very effective by two features. The first is that the prosecutor exercises both of these powers without the knowledge of the public. Secondly, these are both “totally discretionary and virtually unreviewable” powers. Working in tandem, these prosecutorial powers result to a reduced caseload for the courts (Davis, n.d.).
The power to charge refers to the authority of a prosecutor to decide whether to charge an individual with a crime or not. Such a decision is usually based on available evidence. In case the prosecutor decides to bring a charge, his or her next decision is what charge or charges to bring against a suspect. This means that even if a police officer is convinced that a suspect has actually committed a crime, the final decision whether said suspect should be charged with the alleged crime rests on the prosecutor. Since this charging decision is solely at the discretion of the prosecutor, his or her decision is final and not subject to review (Davies, n.d.).
The prosecutor has a very wide discretion as far as his or her charging power is concerned. Take for instance an individual who was arrested by a police officer while in actual possession of heroine. For the apprehending officer, this case should be a cut and dried case since he or she has caught the suspect red-handed. In spite of this, however, the prosecutor is left with several options. His or her first option is to charge the suspect with a simple case of heroine possession. A second option would be to charge the suspect with “possession with intent to distribute heroine.” Then the prosecutor’s final option is to charge the suspect with “distribution of heroine.” The first option (possession of heroine) is only a misdemeanor offense in many states which carries a maximum penalty of imprisonment of up to one year. However, the second option (possession with intent to distribute) and the third option (distribution of heroine) are felony offenses under the state and the federal laws. As felony offenses, the minimum mandatory penalty is imprisonment of at least five years. It could be worse for a suspect who has a previous conviction for the same offense because the mandatory minimum imprisonment could be longer. Simply put, a prosecutor decides whether to send a person to jail for a maximum of one year or a minimum of five years. Regardless of the amount of heroine involved, no judge could question the prosecutor’s charging decision because of the reasoning that only a prosecutor knows whether a charge could stand up in court. For some people, this totally discretionary power of a prosecutor leaves the office wide open to acts of abuse and discrimination. As a matter of fact, records have always shown that the poor and the minorities, who have always been the underserved and less privileged sectors of society, have always fallen victims to such discretionary charging power of prosecutors (Davis, n.d.).
The other significant power of a prosecutor is his or her authority to initiate plea bargaining agreements. A plea bargaining agreement is essentially a contract drawn between the United States government (represented by a prosecutor) and a person charged with a criminal offense. This practice was allowed so that criminal cases involving defendants who are already assumed guilty because of the preponderance of evidence could be resolved before they reach the court by convincing the defendants to plead guilty. The primary objective was to reduce the case load of the courts. Prosecutors are allowed to initiate two types of plea bargaining agreements: “charge bargain” and “sentence bargain” (Larson, 2000).
In a “charge bargain,” the prosecutor first tells the defendant that his or her guilt is already beyond question. Then when the defendant is charged with several offenses, the prosecutor convinces him or her to plead guilty to one or two of them. When the defendant has been initially charged with a major felony, the prosecutor convinces him or her to plead guilty to a lesser offense. In both instances, the inducement is a lesser prison sentence. The prosecutor also tells the defendant that if the case goes to trial and the defendant is found guilty as expected, the sentence would be significantly greater. An example of the first situation is a person who has been arrested while driving a car without a valid driver’s license under the influence of alcoholic drink. What the prosecutor does is to convince the arrestee to plead guilty to a single offense of drunk driving to immediately resolve the case instead of charging him or her with two offenses (driving while under the influence of alcohol and driving without a license) and bring the case to trial. A good example of the second situation would be a defendant charged with “burglary” who will be convinced to plead guilty to a lesser offense of “attempted burglary” which is a lesser felony (Larson, 2000).
Under the terms of the second type of plea bargaining – the “sentence bargain” – the prosecutor first informs the defendant what his or her sentence would be since he or she is expected to be pronounced guilty because of the preponderance of evidence. Then the prosecutor would give his or her assurance that the presiding judge would hand down a lighter sentence as long as the defendant pleads guilty as charged because the guilty plea would serve as a mitigating circumstance. A “sentence bargain” is usually resorted to by a prosecutor in high profile cases where the charge could not be downgraded because of the risk that the media would become highly critical of his or her action. However, unlike a “charge bargain,” a “sentence bargain” is not as discretionary because it needs the approval of the presiding judge before it could be consummated (Larson, 2000).
Advocates of plea bargaining agreements claim that the practice does not only reduce the case load of the courts but also saves government significant amount of money. However, according to the critics of the practice, it is highly immoral and discriminating because poor defendants are being forced into pleading guilty even to trumped-up charges. There are claims that prosecutors have started doing away with the requirement that plea bargaining agreements should only apply to cases where the guilt of the defendants are already established. What actually happens out there, according to critics, is that prosecutors single out poor defendants and tell them that if they refuse to plead guilty, the system, which often works against them, would find them guilty, anyway. Since these poor defendants are usually being defended by poorly-paid but overworked public defenders who are assigned to them by the courts, they are often forced into pleading guilty. This is because the public defenders – most of whom have been observed to be putting up perfunctory defense – are only too willing to assist their court-assigned clients in working out plea bargaining agreements in order to wrap up the case and move on to the next one. It only goes to show that public defenders are only in the game for the money and are not interested in defending their clients sincerely and honestly (Macionis, 2006).
Causes of wrongful convictions
It is clear from the foregoing discussion that the criminal justice system of the country is workable but only if the people who are entrusted with its different units remain true to their avowed duties to safeguard the basic rights of the American people. Unfortunately, keen observers would clearly see that if the system would be staffed with unscrupulous people, it would easily crack and expose fatal defects. In other words, the criminal justice system of the country is too ideal to remain inviolate for long in the face of human frailty. Wrongful convictions, therefore, are as much a result of systemic defects as an aftermath of the unrelenting onslaught being waged by unprincipled people out to make a killing. Put another way, cases of wrongful convictions occur because of serious misconduct on the part of the major players in the criminal justice system: police officers, prosecutors, judges, forensic employees, and court-appointed public defenders. Such misconduct could be due to corruption, discrimination, or to the desire of overzealous officials to quash crime by all means.
The Innocence Project, a non-profit organization which was founded for the purpose of working for the release of wrongfully convicted Americans, identified several ways whereby criminal justice officers adversely influence the outcomes of trials and result to wrongful convictions. Some of these are their exploitation of eyewitness misidentification, obtaining false confessions, the use questionable informant or jailhouse snitch, forensic employee misconduct, bad lawyering, and government misconduct (Innocence Project, n.d.). Aside from the causes identified by the Innocence Project, Roberts (2001) stated that plea bargaining also causes wrongful convictions.
Eyewitness misidentification could result from erroneous procedures being practiced by police officers. For instance, a witness was once placed in the back seat of a police car and then made to identify a suspect who was standing in a poorly lit area a hundred feet away. Police officers have also been found to have shown several photos to a rape case witness with one of the photos marked “R.” In another case, witnesses who were shown several arrays of photos hesitated in their identification of the suspect. However, during the proper trial, the prosecutor informed the members of the jury that the witnesses were firm in their identification of the suspect (Innocence Project – a, n.d.).
Calvin Willis was convicted for raping a 10-year-girl in 1982 on the strength of eyewitness misidentification. The victim was the oldest of three girls who were then sleeping in their home in Shreveport, Louisiana, but was the only one who was raped by “the man in cowboy boots.” When police officers investigated the case, they presented the victim with an array of photos and told her to identify the man who did not have a beard as her attacker. However, in her testimony, she said that she did not identify anyone in the array of photos shown her by police officers because she did not see the face of her attacker. Nevertheless, her testimony was contradicted by police officers who testified under oath that she pointed at the photo of Calvin Willis. When the victim’s mother also testified that their neighbors had mentioned Willis as the possible perpetrator of the crime, he was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Willis was only exonerated by DNA testing in 2003, after serving 22 years in prison. Eyewitness misidentification accounted for more than 75% of the total number of convictions which were overturned with the aid of DNA testing (Innocence Project, n.d.).
Another discovered cause of wrongful conviction is the use by police officers of false confessions. It was found that many innocent people were forced to confess to crimes that they did not commit during police interrogations because of several reasons, some of which are duress, torture, diminished capacity, threat of a more severe penalty, ignorance of the law, misleading promises made by police interrogators, and mental impairment. For instance, mentally-disabled people had often been victimized by police interrogators because they tend to be agreeable with figures of authority. Even adults with full mental capability were found to have given false confessions after exhaustive interrogations and their police interrogators promised to release them after signing their confessions and gave them their chance to prove that they were innocent at a later time. In some cases, suspects were forced to make false confessions after being informed that their confession could save them from the death penalty (Innocence Project, n.d.).
Eddie Joe Lloyd, a mentally ill suspect, was convicted for the murder of a 16-year-old girl in 1984 in Detroit. Police officers first fed him with the details of the crime and then convinced him that by signing a confession, he would actually be helping the police “smoke out” the real killer. Since he was mentally ill, the police eventually succeeded in obtaining his signed confession. Police interrogators also recorded his statement detailing how he killed the girl. When the case reached the court, the jury, after barely an hour of deliberation, returned a verdict of guilty. He was only spared from the death penalty because capital punishment was not being implemented in the state of Michigan at the time. Lloyd was exonerated with the help of DNA testing in 2002 (Innocence Project, n.d.).
Use of Informant or Jailhouse Snitch
Out of the total number of wrongful convictions which DNA testing has so far overturned, around 15% of cases involved innocent people who were convicted with police officers and prosecutors relying on the testimonies of informants or jailhouse snitches. Police officers and prosecutors obtain false testimonies from these individuals using several means: by paying them for their false testimonies; by promising to arrange for their early release from prison in exchange for their false testimonies; and by motivating them to provide false testimonies so that they would not be charged with a crime which they themselves committed thereby avoiding imprisonment. The three incentives for these informants, therefore, are money, reduction in the sentence for a snitch who is already serving his or her time in prison, and an option to avoid imprisonment for a snitch who has not been convicted yet. In almost all of the cases which involved such informants and snitches, their arrangements with the police is never disclosed to the jury (Innocence Project, n.d.).
Contact between police investigators and snitches take place in two ways. Sometimes they go to the police voluntarily and promise to disclose vital information which they have allegedly overheard in jail in exchange for a preferred treatment. However, in some of the cases, the police officers themselves seek out prisoners, provide them with the details of the case and then arrange for them to be housed in the same cell as the defendant, and finally coach them on what to say in front of the jury. Their false testimonies have often provided the only evidence against the accused in cases where neither witnesses nor pieces of biological evidence could be found (Innocence Project, n.d.).
The 1985 case of Verneal Jimerson and three others was a good example of a conviction which was based solely on false testimonies of snitches. Jimerson was charged with double murder with three others in what came to be known as the “Ford Heights Four” case. His co-accused, Willie Rainge, Dennis Williams, and Kenneth Adams were earlier convicted on the strength of the false testimonies of other snitches and subsequently sentenced to death (Williams) and long imprisonment (Adams and Rainge). Iimerson was convicted after police investigators employed another snitch – Paula Gray. She was made to appear as an accomplice of the four and actually sent to prison for her supposed part in the crime. Then she was coached by police investigators so that she could provide false testimony against Jimerson which resulted to a conviction. When William and Rainge appeared before the court for their retrial, Gray again testified against them which resulted to their re-conviction. After her testimonies against Jimerson and later against William and Rainge, Gray was released from prison where she was supposed to be serving 50 years as one of the perpetrators of the double murder (Center on Wrongful Convictions, Winter 2004-2005).
Forensic Employee Misconduct
While some cases of wrongful convictions resulted from honest mistakes committed by forensic employees, lack of proper training and support, and inadequate resources, many innocent defendants were wrongfully convicted because of so-called “bad apples” among forensic employees. A case which was later overturned with the help of DNA testing, for instance, involved a conviction which resulted from forensic test results which were fabricated by a forensic employee. Another case involved an employee who submitted test results as evidence without actually conducting the tests. Still another innocent defendant was convicted after the forensic employee withheld portions of the forensic test results which favored the defendant (Innocence Project, n.d.).
The case of Alejandro Dominguez illustrates how an error committed by a forensic employee could irreparably harm the defendant’s case. He was wrongfully convicted for rape at the age of sixteen on the strength of an eyewitness misidentification which was aggravated by a “reckless omission” on the part of a forensic scientist. The forensic scientist testified that semen was collected from the body of the rape victim and that the blood type of the defendant was found to have matched the sample of the semen taken from the victim’s body. Because of that testimony, the members of the jury were led to believe that Dominguez, indeed, committed the crime. However, what they did not know because the forensic scientist failed to tell them was that the blood type of “two-thirds of men in America would have matched that [semen] sample.” Because of that omission, the defendant was convicted of rape and sentenced to serve nine years in prison. He was exonerated after four years in prison and paying for a DNA testing out of his own money (Innocence Project, n.d.).
Poor defendants have been wrongfully convicted as a result of a lack of proper legal representation because they could not afford to pay for the services of good lawyers to defend them in court. Their fate is understandably doomed even before their cases reach the court because the cheap lawyers who usually take on their cases are often incompetent and simply incapable of performing efficiently. If it happens that the lawyers that they hire are also overburdened, then their fate is definitely sealed. In spite of their innocence, they are convicted because their lawyers, who are too overworked and too lacking in resources to even to conduct basic investigations and gather credible witnesses, could not even put up a decent defense. It is even worse for those defendants who are provided with court-appointed defenders because they could not even afford cheap lawyers. Public defenders are the worst of the lot owing to a shrinking government funding (Innocence Project, n.d.).
Some of the cases which have been overturned with the aid of DNA testing showed that some of the defense lawyers were asleep while the trial was ongoing. There were also cases were defense lawyers did not even investigate the alibis of witnesses and did not consult forensic experts to help in the defense of their clients. In some cases, the defense lawyers did not even attend the hearings. Jimmy Ray Bromgard was convicted for brutally raping an eight-year-old girl when he was only 18 years old. He spent 15 years behind bars before he was exonerated by a post-conviction DNA testing. A review of the case proceedings showed that his lawyer had been guilty of gross negligence. It was found that the defense lawyer “performed no investigation, filed no pre-trial motions, gave no opening statement, did not prepare for closing argument, failed to file an appeal, and provided no expert to refute the fraudulent testimony of the state’s hair microscopy expert.” Bromgard was convicted on the strength of a tentative identification, a fraudulent forensic testimony, and bad lawyering (Innocence Project, n.d.).
Government misconduct refers to situations where government officials like police officers and prosecutors do everything in their power to secure the conviction of a defendant in spite of the fact that their evidence against the accused is weak. In some of these cases, there were even proof that the defendants were innocent of the crimes charged against them. Some corrupt prosecutors were found to have withheld vital information or evidence from the lawyers of the defendants, in effect, preventing them from putting up a decent defense. Coercing defendants to give false confessions is another official misconduct. This has been very prevalent in cases where the defendants were either mentally impaired or had diminished capacity. “Deliberate suggestiveness in identification procedures” is another misconduct which occurs when police investigators ensure that the eyewitness picks out their favored suspect out of an array of photos. One way of doing this is by marking the photo of one particular rape suspect with an “R,” suggesting to the witness that they want to pick him out of the array of photos. The “bad apples” in the police force and the office of the prosecutors have also been using unreliable or paid informants against defendants whom they want to convict despite the absence of strong evidence (Innocence Project, n.d.).
Records show that out of the first 74 exonerations, 37 wrongful convictions resulted from police misconduct like “suppression of exculpatory evidence” and “suggestiveness in identification procedure” while 33 wrongful convictions were due to prosecutorial misconduct such as “suppression of exculpatory evidence” and “knowing use of false testimony.” A classic example of government misconduct (combination of police and prosecutorial misconduct) was discovered in 2001 in connection with the case of Bruce Godschalk of Pennsylvania who was convicted in 1987 of two rapes. It was found that the evidence used to convict him consisted of a false confession which the police was able to squeeze out of him, a false testimony given by a jailed snitch, and a misidentification which was made by one of the victims. The effort to exonerate him by means of DNA testing was started by the Innocence Project sometime in 2001. However, even after 14 years, government misconduct continued. For instance, a motion which was made by the state prosecutor claimed that all the relevant evidence were already sent to a forensic laboratory for testing but neither the defendant nor the Innocence Project which has been directly involved in the effort was not informed – in other words, the forensic testing was held in secret. The motion further claimed that the laboratory testing, which had consumed all available biological evidence, had turned out inconclusive. It also turned out that a sample of the carpet containing a semen stain was not sent to the laboratory to be tested. Fortunately, when the same carpet sample later surfaced and was tested, the semen did not belong to Godschalk (Innocence Project, n.d.).
The net effect of plea bargaining is to drastically reduce the number of criminal cases which reach the courts. As of 2002, for instance, out of 75,573 criminal cases which were resolved by government prosecutors, only 3,463 (less than 5%) were actually tried in court. The remaining 95% (72,110 cases) were resolved after the defendants pled guilty, most of whom did so under plea bargaining agreements initiated by government prosecutors (Mnookin, 2005). This resulted to the deterioration of the investigative techniques being employed by police officers primarily because their evidence is seldom tested in proper court trials. Hence, this development has caused police investigators to become careless, their investigation to become sloppy, resulting to more and more innocent individuals being apprehended and charged with crimes. On the other hand, government prosecutors became corrupt, became more dependent on plea bargaining in order to resolve cases as fast as possible in the face of “budgetary pressures.” They also learned that by coercing defendants (especially poor defendants) into agreeing to plea bargaining agreements, they are able to increase the rate of their convictions and improve their performance record (Roberts, 2001).
The Appeals Process
Under the criminal justice system of the country, a defendant who feels that he or she was wrongfully convicted has the right to appeal his or her case to the next higher court. After the final judgment has been issued by the trial court, the defendant should immediately file a Notice of Appeal with the trial court. This notice is meant to notify both the court and the prosecution of the defendant’s desire to appeal the case. Since state laws have provided specific time frames for the filing of such a notice, it is important for the defendant to comply with the stipulated time frames. Failure to file the Notice of Appeal within the prescribed period would permanently bar the defendant from raising his or her appeal because the appellate court would never be able to exercise jurisdiction over his or her case (Ryan, n.d.).
With the Notice of Appeal duly filed, the appellate court then exercises jurisdiction over the case and establishes the schedule for the filing of the relevant documents. Among the documents needed to be filed with the appellate court would be the appellate brief of the defendant (Ryan, n.d.). An appellate brief, which is prepared by the appellate attorney, contains all the legal arguments that support the defendant’s belief that he or she should have won the case for the purpose of convincing the judge to reverse the ruling of the lower court. Contrary to its name, an appellate brief is a rather lengthy document. (Gerstenfield, 2002).
Once the brief is received at the appellate court, the presiding judge would brief the parties and then hold a hearing to allow both parties to present their oral arguments. These oral arguments generally focus on the legal issues involved in the case. After the oral arguments comes the review of the case the primary purpose of which is to look for errors committed during the course of the hearing at the lower court. Errors are classified as “harmless, harmful, or reversible.” The appellate court disregards the harmless errors even if the lower court committed many of them because such errors do not influence the result of the case. The appellate court, however, concerns itself with the harmful errors because it is these errors that impact the result of the case and compel the court to reverse the ruling of the lower court. In addition, if the appellate court finds that the lower court committed what is known as a “reversible error,” it has no other recourse but to overturn the ruling of the lower court and decide in favor of the appellant (Larson [a], 2000).
For most states, an appeal is first made to an intermediate-level appellate court. Then if the defendant loses, he or she could make another appeal to the State Supreme Court. Most states, however, require the defendant to obtain permission before lodging a second appeal. If the defendant still fails to secure a reversal at the State Supreme Court, his or her next stop would be the federal courts. However, an appeal to a federal court could only be based on “federal issues” or questions involving violations of relevant federal constitutional laws. In other words, the appellate attorney should immediately raise the issue of federal law violations during the appeal at the state level so that the door to an appeal at the federal level would be left open just in case the defendant needs to go that far (Larson [a], 2000).
On the other hand, if the defendant wins his or her appeal, the prosecutor could make an appeal to the next higher court. However, before making an appeal, the prosecutor could also offer a plea bargaining agreement which calls for the defendant to plead guilty and indicate a sentence of “time served.” If the defendant agrees, then the case is immediately resolved. Most of the defendants who agree to plea bargain are those who do not want a retrial for fear that they might lose and be convicted again. If, however, the defendant insists on his or her innocence and the prosecutor decides to make an appeal, then the case is retried (Larson [a], 2000). In making an appeal, the defendant should keep in mind that the process usually takes from 12 to 18 months to be completed. Moreover, since the appellate law is a highly specialized branch of the legal profession, the defendant would stand a better chance if he or she could avail of the services of a qualified and experienced appellate attorney to handle the appeal (Ryan, n.d.).
The Innocence Project
Defendants who were wrongfully convicted or felt that they were wrongfully convicted may or may not have exhausted their opportunities for appeal. In any case, many of them have not stopped hoping that the day would come when a new opportunity would present itself to help them prove their innocence and restore their freedom. Such an opportunity did present itself in the form of post-conviction DNA testing. In order to grab the opportunity, Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld founded the Innocence Project in 1992 at Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law specifically to help convicts avail of DNA testing for the purpose of proving their innocence. So far, a total of 237 people have already been exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing, including 17 death row inmates. The average time served by these people before they were released after DNA testing exonerated them had been 12 years. Adopting the mission of working “to free the staggering numbers of innocent people who remain incarcerated and to bring substantive reform to the system responsible for their unjust imprisonment,” the Innocence Project is now an independent nonprofit organization but has remained affiliated with the Cardozo School of Law (Innocence Project, n.d.).
Post-conviction DNA testing has recently played an important role in advancing efforts aimed at exonerating innocent Americans who were wrongfully convicted. It has proven to be an effective tool in reviewing cases which resulted to convictions despite the inadequacy of evidence against the accused. DNA is also deoxyribonucleic acid which is none other than the “fundamental building block of a person’s genetic structure.” It is found in the blood, sweat, semen, and other fluid substances of the body. Forensic scientists are also able to extra DNA from the hair strand of an individual, his or her skin cells, and other tissues (Science and Technology Information Institute, 2009).
The DNA of an individual (and all other living organisms) is found in almost all of his cells. In other words, every cell contains the same DNA. DNA information is stored in each cell in the form of a code which consists of four letters representing the four chemical bases, namely: A for adenine, T for thymine, C for cytosine, and G for guanine. These chemical bases pair up in two’s and form a four-letter sequence. For instance, in one individual, A pairs with T and C pairs with G, to form the four-letter sequence ATCG. This sequence represents the information which is available for the maintenance of the organism as well as in cell division for the purpose of building new cells (Genetics Home Reference, 2009). The repetition of this sequence pattern (ATCG) is called “short tandem repeats (STR).” In the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) recommends that 13 markers are enough to identify the DNA of an individual (Science and Technology Information Institute, 2009).
For this reason, DNA is an effective means of establishing the identities of those who had something to do with crimes. When a crime is committed, samples of fluids and tissues recovered from the scene of the crime (blood from the floor, skin tissues from the fingernails of an assault victim, hair strands from the carpet, semen from the vagina of a rape victim, or saliva stain from cigarette butts) are brought to a forensic laboratory for profiling or typing. The resulting DNA is then compared with the DNA of known suspects in the crime for the purpose of establishing guilt or innocence. However, care should be taken in collecting and handling biological samples (like blood, sweat, hair strands, fibers) for DNA testing. The integrity of the “Chain of Custody” should never be jeopardized. “Chain of Custody” refers to the people who handle the samples. It is important that the investigators and prosecutors do not only know all those who have handled the samples but they should also be able to guarantee that no unauthorized persons had gained access to the samples. This is because the samples could be contaminated very easily. If the integrity of the “Chain of Custody” of a DNA sample is jeopardized, the defense could question its validity and could move for its exclusion as evidence at trial. As long as the “Chain of Custody” is clearly established, it would be very easy to isolate the DNA of investigators who could have inadvertently mishandled the samples and maintain the validity of the DNA test results as evidence of the crime (Science and Technology Information Institute, 2009). As already mentioned, the Innocence Project has been making use of post-conviction DNA testing to help exonerate wrongfully convicted defendants.
Court rulings on post-conviction DNA testing
Initially, access to old biological samples for the purpose of post-conviction testing had been questioned. However, several court decisions supported the defendants’ demands for post-conviction DNA testing. For instance, in Wade v. Brady, 460 F Supp. 226, 241 (D. Mass. 2006), Judge Nancy Gertner ruled that a defendant retains the right to access biological samples for post-conviction DNA testing in spite of the apparent guilt of the defendant even without DNA evidence. In other words, even if the court already pronounced the defendant guilty without having to use DNA evidence at trial, if biological samples collected from the scene of the crime still exist, the defendant could have them tested and use the result to review his or her case (Strutin, 2008).
This decision also provided the basis for Judge Gleeson’s later ruling in the case of Frank McKithen who was accused of stabbing his estranged wife in 1992. While the knife allegedly used in the stabbing was introduced as evidence, it was not tested for fingerprint or biological sample. The jury later convicted the defendant for attempted murder without DNA evidence. Seven years later, when the defendant requested the court to have the knife tested for DNA to support his theory that his estranged wife’s boyfriend may have been the guilty party, Judge Gleeson ruled “that where a clemency system existed that can undo a conviction based on actual innocence, and where testing can be done without overburdening the state’s resources, a convicted person had the right to access physical biological evidence for DNA testing” (Strutin, 2008).
Even in cases where DNA evidence was already used to support a conviction, the court ruled that the defendant still retains the right to have the same biological samples tested again once a new and better technology becomes available. This was the court’s decision in Osborne v. District Attorney’s Office, 521 F.3d 1118 (9th Cir. 2008). Osborne was convicted in 1994 for kidnapping and sexual assault. During trial, two strands of hair and a semen sample which was collected from a used condom were tested and the result used as evidence to support his conviction. When the STR method (which is better than the DQ Alpha method which was used at the time of trial) became available, the defendant requested the court for the testing of the same samples using the STR method. The 9th Circuit Court, in recognizing the right of the defendant as established in Wade v. Brady, “reasoned that the state’s denial of access to biological evidence for DNA testing violated Osborne’s due process rights.” The court based its argument in the fact that DNA evidence was used in convicting Osborne. With the emergence of a new and better technology, the court considered it necessary to apply the newer method on the same biological samples because it believed that the results would be material in challenging the conviction of the defendant (Strutin, 2008).
This holding was reiterated in Breest v. Attorney General for New Hampshire, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4033 (D.N.H. 2008). Robert Breest was convicted by a state court more than 30 years ago for the murder of a woman. During the last eight years, Breest had been requesting the court to subject to a more definitive testing the biological sample which was taken from the fingernails of the victim which identified him as the attacker. When the samples were tested, the results were inconclusive, therefore not enough to exonerate the defendant. Unsatisfied with the results, Breest requested the state court to issue an order for the samples to be subjected to more discriminating tests but was denied. The state court held that the reasons presented by the defendant in challenging the results of the earlier tests were not enough to satisfy the requirements of the state laws. However, when Breest appealed his case to the federal court, it decided in his favor. The judge expressed the belief that the intention of the state Legislature was to allow defendants to access genetic samples “when evolving technology offers a potentially meaningful and exculpatory result,” defending the constitutional right of the defendant under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment (Strutin, 2008).
Between 1989 and 2009, more than 230 wrongfully convicted defendants have already been exonerated with the help of post-conviction DNA testing. Out of this total, seventeen were in death row awaiting their appointment with the executioner before their timely rescue. If not for post-conviction DNA testing, therefore, seventeen people would have already been executed or about to be executed for crimes that they did not commit. What made matters worse is the fact that around 70% of these innocent defendants came from the ranks of the minority. Thanks to post-conviction DNA testing, exoneration efforts have already been successful in 33 states and in Washington, D.C. (Innocence Project, n.d.). The exoneration by year is shown in table presented below:
(Source: Innocence Project, n.d.)
Some Case Profiles
Bloodsworth was the first death row inmate who was exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing. He was charged for raping and killing a nine-year-old girl in July 1984 and was subsequently convicted in March 1985. The victim was found “strangled, raped, and beaten with a rock.” The police arrested Bloodsworth after an anonymous caller informed them that the suspect was seen with the girl the day of the crime. Then a witness identified him from a police sketch which was prepared based on the description provided by five other eyewitnesses (Innocence Project, n.d.).
At trial, the prosecutor called the five eyewitnesses to the witness stand and all of them testified that they had definitely seen the suspect with the victim on the day of the crime. Another witness also testified having heard Bloodsworth saying that he did “something terrible that day that would affect his relationship with his wife.” To make matters worse, when he was investigated by police officers, Bloodsworth mentioned something about a bloody rock. Although police investigators found an impression of a shoe near the body of the victim, a forensic analyst later testified that no identifying features could be found on the print (Innocence Project, n.d.).
When Bloodsworth appealed his case, his lawyer explained that the suspect only mentioned the bloody rock because he was shown one when he was interrogated. Then his lawyer also explained the “terrible thing” as Bloodsworth’s “failure to buy the food” which his wife requested him to buy. Then the fact that police officers failed to mention the fact there was a possibility of another witness was also raised. As a result of these revelations, the appellate court overturned his conviction and a retrial was conducted. Unfortunately, the retrial resulted to his being convicted to “two life terms, to run consecutively” (Innocence Project, n.d.).
Fortunately, the prosecution agreed to allow the Forensic Science Associates (FSA) to conduct DNA testing in 1992. Subjected to testing were a stick which police found at the scene of the crime and the underwear and the shorts of the victim. The FSA prepared an autopsy slide which was compared with the blood standards of both the suspect and the victim. Based on the comparison, the FSA said that the quantity of spermatozoa which was on the slide was not sufficient for testing. Moreover, the DNA test which was done on the biological sample taken from the panties of the victim excluded Bloodsworth. When the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) replicated the test, the same result was obtained. As a result of these findings, Bloodsworth was finally released in June 1993. He was pardoned six months later. When he was exonerated, Bloodsworth had already spent more than eight years behind bars, including two years in death row (Innocence Project, n.d.).
“Conviction: Armed Assault w/ Intent to Murder, Home Invasion, Assault and Battery by means of a Dangerous Weapon, Armed Robbery, Assault and Battery on a Police Officer, Assault by means of a Dangerous Weapon, Unlicensed Possession of a Firearm; Sentence: 30-45 years” (Innocence Project, n.d.).
His case arose from an incident which happened on May 30, 1997 in which an unidentified assailant shot and wounded a Boston police officer using the police officer’s own service firearm. After shooting the officer, the assailant also fired at a person who was looking out of a second floor window of a nearby house before running away. In his haste, he left his baseball hat behind. Then he forced his way into another house where he drank water from a mug in front of the residents of the house. When he fled from the house, he left the officer’s gun and his sweatshirt behind. Cowans was identified by the police officer from an array of photos two weeks later. On July 2, 1997, he was also identified by the person who was watching from his bedroom window even as the police officer picked him out of a police line-up. However, the residents of the house which was forcibly entered by Cowans failed to pick him out of the lineup in spite of the fact that they were the witnesses who had spent more time with the assailant (Innocence Project, n.d.).
The identification which was made by the officer and the man who witnessed the incident from his bedroom window was used by the prosecution at trial. The latent fingerprint which was lifted from the glass which was used by the assailant when he drank water in the house was also used as evidence. A fingerprint expert testified for the prosecution that said latent print matched the left thumb print of Cowan. Based on the identification of the officer and the man by the window, Cowans was convicted and sentenced to a prison term of from 30-45 years (Innocence Project, n.d.).
Cowans challenged his conviction and with the help of the Innocence Project, a stipulation which was entered into between the prosecution, the defense counsel, and the Innocence Project was approved by the Suffolk Superior Court on May 22, 2003, to release the mug, the assailant’s baseball hat and his sweatshirt were released for DNA testing. The test results showed that the DNA profile found on these items did not match the DNA profile of Cowan. When the DNA results excluded Cowan and the fingerprint evidence was re-examined, the re-examination also showed that it did not match Cowan’s left thumb print as testified to by the fingerprint expert. As a result of post-conviction DNA testing, Cowans was released on January 23, 2004 and was formally exonerated on February 2, 2004 (Innocence Project, n.d.).
Ray Krone was convicted of kidnapping and first degree murder and was sentenced to death and a consecutive imprisonment of twenty-one years. The victim of the crime, which happened in Phoenix, Arizona, was a thirty-six year old woman who was found nude on the morning of December 29, 1991, in the men’s comfort room of a bar where she was working at the time. Investigation established that she died from stab wounds. Some biological samples like blood and saliva were collected from the crime scene and on the body of the victim. The blood was found to have matched the blood of the victim while the saliva belonged to somebody who had a very common blood type. Since no semen was found on the victim, no DNA testing was performed. However, investigators found bite marks on the neck and breast of the victim (Innocence Project, n.d.).
When investigators learned from a friend of the victim that someone by the name of Ray Krone, a regular customer of the bar, was supposed to help her in closing up the bar, the police immediately invited Krone and requested him to make a dental impression on Styrofoam. Based solely on that Styrofoam impression, the police arrested Krone on December 31, 1991. He was charged with kidnapping, sexual assault, and murder. Krone maintained his innocence throughout the trial. He claimed that he was asleep in his room during the night in question. However, the jury convicted him for murder and kidnapping when a prosecution expert testified that the bite marks on the body of the victim matched the Styrofoam impression of Krone’s teeth. He was, however, cleared of the charge of sexual assault because of the absence of semen on the victim (Innocence Project, n.d.).
Upon appeal, he was granted a new trial but was again convicted based solely on the bite mark evidence and was sentenced to life imprisonment. After spending more than ten years behind bars, a DNA test was performed on the blood and saliva samples. The test, which excluded Krone, instead found a match in one Kenneth Phillips who lived near the bar and who had spent time in prison for a separate sex crime. Krone was subsequently released on April 8, 2002 and on April 24, 2002 all charges against him were dropped. Phillips, on the other hand, was charged with murder and sexual assault. Krone became the twelfth inmate from death row who was exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing. Before his wrongful conviction, Krone had no prior criminal record and had served for seven years in the postal service after his honorable discharge from the U.S. military (Innocence Project, n.d.).
In spite of these exonerations by virtue of post-conviction DNA testing, the Innocence Project declares that the United States criminal justice system is not yet “righting itself.” Instead, what post-conviction DNA testing has managed to achieve is show scientific proof that the system is flawed and that urgent reform is needed to solve the problem.
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