After imprisoning a man 17 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Washington state finally sets him free . . . with $2,500 and a bus ticket.
Northrop was arrested for the rape and kidnapping of a housekeeper. “I instantly said, ‘No, you’ve got the wrong guy,’” Northrop recalls telling detectives. But detectives believed the victim’s testimony, although she was blindfolded for most of the attack. A jury agreed, sentencing Northrop, a father of three children under age 6, to 23 years in prison.
From behind bars, Northrop tried to prove police had the wrong guy. In 2000, he contacted the Innocence Project Northwest at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle.
For years, prosecutors denied the project’s requests to use more advanced DNA testing on the evidence in Northrop’s case. In 2005, a new state law gave judges the power to order additional testing. But it took five more years for Northrop’s testing to be completed and for a court to consider the results that conclusively showed another man’s DNA was on the victim.
In 2010, Northrop, still sitting in prison, got a letter with news he thought he might never get.
“I was jumping around the day room saying, ‘I’m out of here! I’m out of here!’” Northrop said.
But Washington state, like 23 other states, doesn’t compensate the wrongly imprisoned.
According to an Innocence Project study, Northrop is among the 40% of exonerated prisoners nationwide who received nothing from authorities for their time behind bars. The report calls for all states to pass laws providing the same compensation that the federal government offers for federal crimes: $50,000 per year of wrongful incarceration with an additional $50,000 for each year spent on death row. Today, five states have the same standard.
Money would give Northrop a chance to “just get started over again and have a normal life again,” he said. He works full-time but lives in a small room in a friend’s house because he can’t afford his own apartment.
Even in the states that do offer compensation to the innocent, standards vary wildly. Some pay $50,000 per year. Two pay more (Texas and Vermont), but others less. Wisconsin pays $5,000 per year while Missouri pays $50 per day. New Hampshire sets an award cap of $20,000 while other states set a maximum of $500,000, $1 million or no limit.
But even in states on the high end of the compensation scale, the money is usually payed out in annual installments over 20 years, not a lump sum, and the payments stop coming once you die. Which perversely means that the innocent people who have been incarcerated the longest see less money once they’re exonerated.
The city of Pittsburgh has settled with Jordan Miles for a whopping . . . $75,000. The photo at right is what Miles looked like after three Pittsburgh cops beat the hell out of him. They mistook for a weapon the Mountain Dew bottle the 18-year-old music student was carrying. And it just gets uglier from there. I wrote about the case in January of last year, and here’s a follow-up from December. The settlement only covers the city. The cops are still on the hook for possible civil damages, though they’ve been cleared by the state and federal government of any criminal wrongdoing. Of course, if the cops are found liable, the city—by which I mean taxpayers—will cover those damages, too.
Next up, a judge in Louisiana has approved compensation for four DNA exonerees. One spent 30 years in prison. The other three spent 16 years each in a cell. They’ll all get $250,000, plus $80,000 in medical and education expenses, the maximum allowed understate law.
Finally, the U.S. Department of Justice has agreed to pay a man $140,000 for the three years he was wrongly imprisoned due to some blatant misconduct by a federal prosecutor. A federal judge took the unusual step of declaring the man innocent and excoriating former Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Hinshelwood for concealing exculpatory evidence. The DOJ initially offered just $5,000 per year for the wrongful conviction and incarceration. A Florida regulatory agency ordered Hinshelwood to attend a one-day ethics workshop. The DOJ took no disciplinary action. Hinshelwood is now in private practice in Florida.
A point that can’t be made often enough when discussing labor in the developing wrold.
Jeffrey Havard again denied by the Mississippi Supreme Court. I’ve written about Havard’s case several times, but here’s a good summary. The only real evidence against him was now-disputed testimony from Steven Hayne. Yet he’s now perilously close to an execution date. I’ll have more on this later.
In September 2004, Mark Warner, then Virginia’s governor, ordered a random audit of 31 old criminal cases after a vast trove of biological evidence was discovered lying around in old case files saved by state forensic serologists. The testing of those 31 samples led to the exonerations of two convicted rapists. Warner, embarrassed by the revelations, then ordered in late 2005 that every sample obtained between 1973 and 1988 be rechecked. It amounted to thousands of files . . .
At the time Virginia’s audit began, Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, which has used DNA testing to exonerate hundreds of prisoners across the country, noted in astonishment that “a random sample of convicted felons and we’re getting a 7 percent exoneration rate” in Virginia. But it appears that a 7 percent exoneration rate may be grossly understating the problem. UVA’s Garrett suspects that the error rate may actually be as high as 17 percent. As he discovered in his own research, Barbour’s conviction, based on the testimony of a single eyewitness, reflects the reality that of the first 250 people exonerated by DNA testing, a whopping 76 percent were misidentified by eyewitnesses.
Whatever the percentage of error on the part of Virginia’s criminal justice system, one thing is certain: Only a handful of the falsely convicted have received the exonerations they deserve.
Due to a widespread sense of shame and an eagerness to take responsibility for its mistakes, the state of Virginia is now opening up its DNA testing process, inviting outside labs to help with the testing project, as well as to independently verify the results from the state lab. The state is also inviting journalists and academics to scrutinize the project to look for errors and oversights.
It was a project intended to take 18 months at a cost of $1.4 million dollars. Now in its seventh year, the cost of the project hovers at $5 million. Nobody has any idea exactly how the Virginia Department of Forensics has conducted its work. Indeed, no one knows much about the specifics of the crime lab’s work at all . . .
University of Virginia law school professor Brandon Garrett (who has contributed to Slate) is an expert on wrongful convictions and DNA exoneration. His landmark study, Convicting the Innocent, scrutinized the cases of the first 250 people to be exonerated nation-wide by DNA testing. To hear him tell it, Virginia’s statewide audit is a mystery wrapped in obfuscation. “This DNA testing program began two Governors ago,” he says, “but its operation has remained shrouded in secrecy. We do not know how the authorities chose to test the cases that they have tested. We do not know how long the authorities have known about the many dozens of cases where DNA has excluded the individuals. We do not know what local prosecutors plan to do about the cases where DNA may prove innocence.”
The state’s actions only get more sordid from there. State officials initially refused to make any attempt at all to let convicts know that their DNA was being tested. When compelled to do so by the state legislature, they’ve complied only in the most bare-bones sense of the word. They’re still refusing to release the information to the public. Instead, they’ve sent letters loaded with legalese to the last known addresses of the convicted. Some of these cases are decades old. They finally relented and have allowed pro bono attorneys to track down the convicts, but only under the stipulation that the attorney who does the tracking agree to not represent the convict in any subsequent legal action.
If you want to squeeze some dark humor out of this tragedy, look to the absurd justifications state officials are giving for their obstinacy. For example, here’s one official’s explanation why they initially balked at letting pro bono attorneys track down the exonerated:
”If you send a young, new attorney to a bad neighborhood, bad things could happen.”
And here’s why the state made no effort to send DNA results from the exonerated who have since died to their next of kin:
“That information is private and personal, and maybe that individual doesn’t want his family members to have a copy of the report. We have to protect the sensitivity and privacy of those individuals.”
So yes, state of Virginia may wrongly convict you, then send you to prison for decades for a crime you didn’t commit. But rest assured. Should DNA testing exonerate you after your death, the state will honor your privacy and “sensitivity” by refusing to notify your family that you were innocent all along.
Doctor faces murder charges for prescriptions she wrote for painkillers. Note that the investigation began in 2008, the deaths she’s charged with causing occurred until December 2009, and she had her license and was still prescribing until at least the end of 2010. This is consistent with the criticism that law enforcement agents are more interested in bagging scalps and seizing assets than protecting patients.
Remember when media consolidation was the big fear? Now, it’s too much media. Where are you when we need you, Rupert Murdoch!?!
A Texas man is currently 13 1/2 years into a 20-year sentence for molesting his two young cousins. The allegations from the children were corroborated by a bit of pseudo-science quackery worthy of a spot in the forensics hall of shame.
Michael Arena was summoned to a psychologist’s office to measure his sexual attraction to children.
The test given required the 16-year-old to click through images of swimsuit-clad people of various ages while the computer secretly measured how long he viewed each photo. The results, according to the prosecution-hired psychologist who administered the test, showed Arena to be a pedophile who was a “high risk” to strike again.
Bell County prosecutors hammered the finding during Arena’s 1999 trial, urging jurors to choose prison over probation to protect children from a teen “diagnosed as a pedophile by an expert.” The jury responded with a 20-year sentence.
The cousins have since recanted their testimony, and have said they were pressured by their mother to say they’d been molested. She was fighting a custody battle at the time. As you might imagine, the swimsuit photo test has since been shown to be nonsense.
The test, defense lawyers say, had an unacceptably high 35 percent error rate that was not disclosed to Arena’s judge and jury. It was never intended to be used to identify pedophiles, they claim, and a university study found that its results were little better “than chance” when trying to distinguish pedophiles from non-pedophiles.
In addition, the psychologist who examined Arena inflated the test’s effectiveness and scientific support when he testified at Arena’s trial, leading to a reprimand from a state regulatory agency four years later, court records show.
That was the evidence against Arena. The allegations from his two cousins and the test. The test has been shown to be a fraud. The cousins have retracted their allegations. Yet Arena is still in prison. Two judges have upheld his conviction since all of this has come out, and of course the prosecutors aren’t relenting.
The good news is that by the Statesman account, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals at least appeared skeptical of Arena’s questioning during oral arguments.
One other item worth noting. The test, called the Abel Test, is run by a for-profit company. The owner of the rights to the test (eventually) said it was never intended to diagnose pedophiles, but to aid in the treatment of people already diagnosed. But he also refuses to release the test’s methodology, even for criminal cases, claiming that the information is proprietary.
We’ve seen this with breath test machines in DWI cases as well. I just don’t see how this can be acceptable. If you’re going to allow your technology to be used to put people in prison, it seems to me that anything and everything about how the technology works and how the results are interpreted has to be subject to cross-examination.
Any criminal law Agitatortots out there know if the Supreme Court has heard a Confrontation Clause case on the use of proprietary technology in criminal cases? I don’t recall coming across one in my reporting.
Durham District Attorney Tracey Cline, who replaced infamous Duke lacrosse prosecutor Mike Nifong; put at least one innocent man (and likely more) in prison; alleged a vast conspiracy against her between a state judge, defense attorneys, and the News & Observer newspaper; and (most importantly!) took runner-up in the 2011 Agitator.com Worst Prosecutor of the Year Award . . . has been removed from office.
She was a prosecutor who would not back down from anyone. She acted with fierce conviction when she believed she was right. She was aggressive, too, and often framed her pursuit of justice as advocacy for crime victims.
It also shows the reasons she was permanently removed from her job Friday – a stunning inability to get facts straight and an unwillingness to change course when confronted with reasons to do so.
Cline, 48, did not speak in court that January day in Durham, watching as a judge dismissed her claim in a matter of minutes.
She is out of office now because of her words and actions against Durham’s senior judge – lengthy filings filled with vitriolic language, unsubstantiated allegations of corruption, tales of a conspiracy with The News & Observer and other accusations of misconduct that have been obliterated by three judges.
Cline stands by it all, telling Superior Court Judge Robert H. Hobgood last week that “what I recorded in those motions was absolutely true.”
The flawed behavior that cost Cline her job wasn’t new. It has been displayed in a range of criminal cases she handled over the years, according to an examination of court documents, transcripts, interviews and news reports.
But the action she took against Hudson was in full public view, and it was aimed at a judge, not a criminal defendant.
Which is probably why she was removed. Likewise, Cline’s predecessor made the mistake of wrongly targeted a group of innocent defendants who had the money and clout to fight back. Most don’t.
This part is interesting:
Carol Tavris, a Los Angeles social psychologist who has researched and written about the behavior and decision-making of prosecutors, said studies show the human brain, when sorting out conflicting beliefs and actions, will engage in a powerful act known as “self-justification.”
It can keep people from admitting they are wrong and can be more powerful and more dangerous than an explicit lie, she said in an interview and in a 2007 book she co-authored, “Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me).”
People will convince themselves they are correct even when they are not, she said. It happens in everything from bad marriages to buying a car that costs too much.
Self-justification is especially concerning in the justice system, Tavris said, because authorities often view themselves as “good guys” doing the “right thing.”
Tavris said Cline was likely faced with “dissonance” in the face of unfavorable rulings and questions about her work, which leads the brain to “self-justify” decisions and actions.
“It’s really, really, really hard to face the reality that you screwed up,” she said. “When we have a view of ourselves as good, competent, ethical, honest people and we are now confronted with evidence that we did something that was incompetent, unethical, immoral or harmful, we have two choices. We can fess up – say, ‘Oh, my God, look at this evidence, what did I do? How can I make amends?’ Or, we deny.”
In the removal inquiry, Cline did get to speak about her allegation, based on the time stamp, that Hudson decided a case early. She was faced with affidavits from court clerks, testimony and a courtroom transcript that contradicted what she said.
Cline did not yield, saying broadly that she knew the judge decided the case early.
“Are you willing to admit that it’s possible that you’re wrong about what Judge Hudson did?” a lawyer asked her.
Cline said no.
Public choice theory tells us that public officials don’t magically start behaving selflessly and altruistically simply because they’ve chosen a career in public service. They’ll still act in their own interest most of the time, as we all do. That’s not an indictment of public service. It’s a recognition of human nature, and how we’re hard-wired. In terms of policy, it’s prescribes that we design our institutions in a way that accounts for how people actually behave, not for an idealized version of how we hope they’ll behave. The left tends to dismiss public choice theory outright. The right tends to believe it’s applicable to all areas of public service except law enforcement and criminal justice.
These are generalizations, of course. There are exceptions on both sides. But good people don’t thrive in systems with bad incentives. You either attract bad actors, turn good actors into bad ones, or the good actors drop out, leaving you only with the bad ones.
There’s a poignant scene in the documentaryMississippi Innocence in which District Attorney Forrest Allgood, reflecting on the fact that he wrongly convicted two separate men for the rape and murder of two little girls in the early 1990s, tries to mitigate his mistakes. He looks into the camera and says, “At least nobody died.” It’s a striking thing to say. In part because of the way it casually dismisses the fact that Allgood put two men in prison for nearly two decades each, one of whom was nearly executed.
But it’s also inaccurate. As Allgood finishes his sentence, the film cuts to the gravestone of Christine Jackson, the second of the three-year-olds to be sexually assaulted and murdered. If Allgood hadn’t fixated on Levon Brooks after the first murder, and hadn’t enlisted the help of fraudulent forensic specialists Steven Hayne and Michael West to help him get his conviction, he might have been able to identify and convict the real killer, who, for reasons the film explains that are too involved to get into here, should have stuck out as a suspect from the start.
But he didn’t. And so the real killer went on to rape and murder again. And Allgood went on to convict Kennedy Brewer, again the wrong man again, again using Hayne and West, even though the crimes were remarkably similar and occurred just a few miles apart. Allgood then fought like hell to keep both Brooks and Brewer in prison, even as it become obvious to everyone but Allgood that he’d convicted the wrong men.
In 2008, the man who actually killed both little girls, Justin Albert Johnson, was finally identified with DNA testing. This week, he was sentenced to life in prison.
The experience doesn’t appear to have curbed Allgood’s taste for blood.
District Attorney Forrest Allgood said Friday night that he wanted to seek the death penalty for Johnson, but the families of both victims sent letters and asked him not to do so.
“My personal opinion is that anybody that rapes and kills a small child deserves the death penalty,” Allgood said. “… Quite frankly, I would have preferred to have tried him and sought the death penalty.”
Guy loses a bunch of weight, no longer diabetic. Starts a website to help others do the same. He’s now under criminal investigation for providing nutritional advice without a license. This is in North Carolina, the same state that went after a guy last year for practicing engineering without a license when he did some math for a citizens’ reports requesting a couple traffic lights.
A few updates on Bradley: On January 4, UPI reported that the Texas State Bar cleared Bradley of any ethics violations for spending 20 years fighting the DNA test that kept Michael Morton in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. This isn’t terribly surprising. State bars are notoriously lax at disciplining misbehaving prosecutors.
In this November New York Times profile that I didn’t catch when researching Bradley to nominate him, Bradley actually shows some contrition, going so far as to say the DNA results in the Morton case—which, again, he fought like to prevent from ever happening—have changed him. I hope that’s the case, but I’m inclined to think that after the Morton case, after having once advised another prosecutor to seek plea agreements that allow evidence to be destroyed so it can’t be tested in the future on an innocence claim, and after doing all he could to bury any investigation into the Cameron Todd Willingham case, Bradley’s period of penance should probably last more than a few months.
Nevertheless, even after all of that, last year Bradley was still elected to the board of directors (PDF) of the National District Attorneys Association. (Nominee Anita Alvarez is also on the board.) I don’t know if his election was the result of obliviousness to the controversy surrounding Bradley or a way of symbolically defying Bradley’s detractors. Either way, it really doesn’t speak well of the organization’s membership. Or at least of its voting membership.
Bradley is up for reelection for his current DA position. His critics have adopted an amusing way to protest his candidacy: They’re hanging bandannas from Bradley’s campaign sings. The DNA that eventually cleared Michael Morton was taken from a bandanna left at the crime scene.
More than 500 people were wrongly imprisoned in Denver’s jails over seven years, with some spending weeks incarcerated or pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit before authorities realized they nabbed the wrong person, a federal court filing shows.
Civil-rights lawyers suing the city and county of Denver assert the documented mistaken-identity arrests “are the tip of the iceberg” and are an undercount of the true magnitude of the problem.
In one case a black man spent nine days in jail after he was arrested on a warrant for a white man wanted on a sex-crimes arrest warrant.
In another, authorities arrested an 18- year-old when they were searching for a man 30 years older.
A white man was hauled in even when the suspect actually was an American Indian who was nearly a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier. He wasn’t released until almost a month had passed and not until the victim of the crime alerted authorities at a court hearing that they had the wrong suspect . . .
“Denver’s approach to this pervasive problem is to put its head in the sand,” the ACLU said in the motion asking the judge to rule on behalf of four individuals suing the city for wrongful arrests. Three others represented by the ACLU already have reached settlements with the city.
The ACLU, in the motion, cites a 2010 report by the city auditor’s office that blasted the city for having an inadequate system for tracking arrest identity issues.
“We cannot improve what we do not measure,” that city audit reported.
Despite the city’s lack of a comprehensive system to track mistaken- identity arrests, the ACLU identified 503 such cases from 2002 into 2009 by combing through orders issued by judges, internal affairs records, arrest warrant logs and jail records. The ACLU maintains that many more cases exist but the city’s lack of a robust tracking system makes it impossible to get an accurate count.
New Florida Marlins acquisition Mark Buerhle can’t live in Miami because he own an 18-month old Staffie, and Miami-Dade County has a dumb ban on “pit bulls.” I explain the numbskullery of breed-specific legislation here.
Ken at Popehat draws the line between recording police, take-down notices, and SOPA.
Alabama minister sues after his photo was posted to the local sheriff’s “most wanted” web page. It was posted after a tip from an informant.
U.K. couple cleared in the midst of a shaken baby trial after post-mortem exam reveals the child had rickets.
Seattle policy on dash cam videos: We will happily release the police dash cam videos you have requested for your lawsuit . . . just as soon as the statute of limitations expires.
The historian Newt Gingrich is apparently unaware that Washington and Jefferson grew hemp. He also seems to think we had a drug war back then. That, or he thinks Washington and Jefferson were just shooting up pot smokers, vigilante-style.
Utah cop is killed, several others are injured after a shootout during a drug raid. The suspect had no prior criminal record, save for a traffic misdemeanor. The police haven’t yet said if they found any drugs.
“When Obama was sworn into office in 2009, the nation’s clandestine drone war was confined to a single country, Pakistan, where 44 strikes over five years had left about 400 people dead . . . The number of strikes has since soared to nearly 240, and the number of those killed, according to conservative estimates, has more than quadrupled.” These are estimates, because the government won’t say how many innocent people its drones have killed.
Federal worker pay saw lowest increase in 10 years last year, but even with the Obama “freeze,” it was still more than the increase in the private sector. According to USA Today, one in five federal employees now makes over $100,000 per year. The recession isn’t exactly crippling members of Congress, either.
New York Times attempts to paint conceal carry permit owners as crazy gun nuts with an itchy trigger finger, accidentally publishes data suggesting they’re far less likely to commit crimes than the general population, but runs with the narrative anyway.
Michael Bowers has been one one of the heroes to shed light on the bite mark matching fraud. He has personally exposed a number of quacks, and contributed to the National Academy of Sciences report that found no scientific basis for the idea that bite marks on human skin can be definitively matched to one person, to the exclusion of everyone else.
Now, two bite mark specialists whom Bowers has criticized are suing him for stating at a conference that they contributed to a wrongful conviction.
Dentists Russell Schneider, of Waukegan, and Carl Hagstrom, of Fox Lake, filed their lawsuit against Michael Bowers, a dentist in California who is a frequent and sometimes acerbic critic of his fellow forensic odontologists for work that has led to numerous wrongful convictions . . .
The two dentists allege in their lawsuit that Bowers spoke at a conference of forensic dentists in Chicago earlier this year and included a case they worked on in a list of 10 wrongful convictions caused by bite-mark evidence. That, the two allege, was wrong and subjected them to ridicule and a loss of business.
I wrote a bit about this particular case in the Reason criminal justice issue. The prosecutor in the case? None other than Lake County, Illinois Assistant State’s Attorney and DNA fabulist Mike Mermel, who was recently forced to resign for comments he made in an unflattering profile in the New York Times.
When a DNA test in 2003 showed that the semen in the underwear of a 68-year-old woman didn’t belong to Bernie Starks, a man convicted in 1986 of raping . . . her, Mermel dismissed the results because the semen came from the victim’s clothing. Had it come from the woman’s vagina, Mermel said, “I would be standing over there advocating the side that the defense has in the case.”
Three years later, defense attorneys found the rape kit and tested semen recovered from the woman’s vagina. Again, there was no match. Mermel again wouldn’t budge, this time arguing that the woman must have had sex with someone else just before the rape.
In its brief to keep Starks in prison, the state cited Schneider and Hagstrom’s testimony as evidence of Starks’ guilt, despite the DNA evidence. Here’s their attorney:
They say Schneider stood up and told Bowers that Starks’ conviction was not reversed because of any of the bite-mark evidence, but Bowers “ignored plaintiff’s statement and did not retract his assertion that the Bennie Starks conviction was premised upon faulty bite-mark testimony.”
“Whether or not he had sexual intercourse with her … has nothing to do with my clients,” said Michael Krause, one of the attorneys for the two dentists, neither of whom returned calls for comment. “My clients feel that their reputations have been harmed by Bowers’ statements. It’s actually quite simple.”
He’s at least right about that last part. Starks’ attorney explains:
“The victim was attacked by one person who sexually assaulted her. We know that wasn’t Bennie Starks, so it wasn’t Bennie Starks who bit her,” said Jed Stone, one of Starks’ attorneys. “There is no other interpretation of this evidence that makes any sense and isn’t completely fanciful.”
Based on the DNA testing, the Illinois Appellate Court overturned Starks’ conviction in 2006. Because of Mermel’s posturing, Starks has yet to get a new trial. It’s reminiscent of Forrest Allgood keeping Kennedy Brewer in prison years after DNA testing cleared him because of Michael West’s claim that bite marks on the victim were a match with Brewer’s teeth. Allgood postulated that someone else must have raped the girl while Brewer held her down and bit her.
One intriguing thing about this lawsuit: In a defamation suit, the plaintiff must prove that the alleged defamatory statements are false. Assuming it isn’t tossed before it gets that far, it would be fascinating if the lawsuit became an inquiry into the scientific validity of bite mark evidence. Something tells me that Bowers would probably welcome that. The plaintiffs probably wouldn’t.
In other bite mark news, CNN’s Anderson Cooper recently aired a report on the topic on his show. Over at the Bite Marks Evidence blog, David Averill posts this incredible video from the report, in which bite mark specialist Lowell Levine defends bite mark testimony as “important and viable.” But when asked if there’s a way it can be validated with the scientific method, he responds, “I sure can’t think of it.”
It’s telling that Levine would be considered one of the country’s most respected bite mark witnesses. He too nearly helped convict an innocent man. From a 2004 article on bite mark testimony in the Chicago Tribune:
. . . a team of Massachusetts State Police officers turned to Levine in hopes of solving the gruesome murder of Irene Kennedy.
The 75-year-old grandmother had been beaten and stabbed two dozen times while on a morning stroll with her husband in a park outside Boston. The killer, who attacked Kennedy when she and her husband briefly took separate paths, left a bite mark on her breast.
The investigators drove from Boston to Levine’s office. Explaining the circumstances of the murder, they asked him to compare photos of the bite mark on Kennedy’s body with a copy of a mold made from the teeth of a suspect, Edmund Burke . . .
. . . in a sworn deposition taken in the lawsuit, Levine testified that after studying the materials in his office, he told the waiting officers he could not exclude Burke but would need additional information for a more definite opinion.
Three days later, Levine went to Boston to examine more evidence, asking police to provide him with enhanced photos of the bite wound. They did, and that, Levine said, was enough.
In his deposition, Levine said he concluded “to a reasonable scientific certainty” that Burke had left the bite on Kennedy’s breast.
Police searched Burke’s home, and arrested and jailed him. The county prosecutors called the bite mark the “most compelling evidence” in the case.
Less than six weeks later, though, officials had to admit they were wrong. DNA taken from saliva recovered on the bite mark was analyzed. A genetic profile was obtained, and prosecutors said it was not Burke’s. He was set free.
Levine insisted in the January 2003 deposition that he had been correct when he linked the bite mark to Burke, although he also hedged a bit, saying he had never made a definitive “match.”
Under questioning by a lawyer for Burke, who sued the police and Levine after he was cleared, Levine stood by his bite-mark analysis.
“Do you think he bit her breasts?” attorney Robert Sinsheimer, who represents Burke, asked Levine in the deposition.
“I think with a high degree of probability he did,” Levine said. He offered possible explanations for why the DNA did not match Burke, including that police who had handled the crime scene contaminated the DNA.
He also noted that another prominent forensic odontologist, Dr. Ira Titunik of New York, had examined the evidence and concurred in his opinion. Titunik confirmed that he had informally examined the evidence and agreed with Levine.
But then Levine’s analysis took another hit. In June 2003, some five months after Levine testified under oath and held fast to his bite-mark analysis, police announced they had made another arrest in Irene Kennedy’s murder.
The genetic profile derived from the bite mark, the police said, had been entered into a database. It hit on a convicted murderer.
I haven’t yet seen the entire CNN story. I hope they at least mentioned the Burke case before introducing Levine as an expert.
Another example of how when police know a suspect is actually armed and dangerous, they find other ways to apprehend them than to send in the SWAT team while the suspect is sleeping.
America’s is losing its faith in government. If this brings some skepticism about giving government ever-more power (though it likely won’t), it’s a good thing. But it also means government is failing at its most basic and fundamental obligations.
Mark Hemingway on how the fact-checking trend in journalism has evolved into a way for journalists to simply validate their own opinions.
The Supreme Court may be on its way to authorizing medical patents. Tim Lee explains why this is something to worry about.
Alabama: Where it’s illegal to brew your own beer, but it’s perfectly fine to drink while you’re serving on the jury in a death penalty case.
The latest in the Michael Mermel saga: An Illinois court has reversed the conviction of Juan Rivera, the subject of the New York Times piece that led to prosecutor Mermel’s resignation.
The New York Timestakes up the case of Megan Winfrey, convicted of murder at age 16 due primarily to a scent lineup conducted by the miracle dogs of Fort Bend County, Texas Dep. Keith Pikett.
Pikett has been used in thousands of cases all over the country. The problem? There’s no scientific evidence that his lineups are any better than guesswork. Winfrey was accused of committing the murder along with her father and brother. There was no physical evidence linking any of them to the crime. Her father was convicted, then had his conviction overturned by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which found that “scent-discrimination lineups, when used alone or as primary evidence, are legally insufficient to support a conviction.” Her brother’s attorneys put on a credible attack on scent lineups, and was acquitted after 13 minutes of jury deliberations. The prosecutor, of course, is trying to keep Winfrey in prison.
Pikett is currently facing a class-action suit from several people wrongly identified by his dogs. As late as 2009, prosecutors were attempting to retry exonerated convict Anthony Graves based on Pikett’s dogs. In that case, Pikett claimed his dogs had picked up Graves’ sent on 17-year-old evidence recovered from a burned-down crime scene. Graves, who served time on death row, was released last year.
It would have been preferable to go after Mermel for what he’s done instead of what he said to the New York Times, but hey, it’s a start.
Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran is calling for longtime county prosecutor Michael Mermel to be fired for making “inappropriate statements” to the media that Curran said reflect poorly on Lake County’s criminal justice system.
Curran said Thursday he voiced his concerns about Mermel during a closed-door meeting with State’s Attorney Michael Waller Thursday morning.
Though it’s unusual for an elected sheriff to call publicly for a prosecutor’s dismissal, Curran said he did so because of his “disgust” with Mermel’s comments to the media and because of Curran’s respect for the constitutional process.
He cited comments Mermel reportedly made in a recent New York Times story about murder suspects in Lake County who’ve been targeted for prosecution even after DNA evidence pointed to other possible perpetrators…
The sheriff said it’s important for the public to recognize that “Mr. Mermel’s comments are not reflective of the overall majority of law enforcement officials that have made numerous sacrifices and dedicated themselves to seeking justice.”
It’s good that Curran has gone public with this. And this sort of thing is rare enough that he deserves some praise for it. (It probably helps that he has no plans to run for reelection.) But if his last statement were true, he’d have called for Mermel’s resignation years ago. The damage Mermel ahs done to the Lake County criminal justice system didn’t begin with the publication of the Times article on Sunday.