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Criminal Injustice: The Best Reporting on Wrongful Convictions (#MuckReads)

We’ve rounded up the best MuckReads on faulty criminal trials: from prosecutors suppressing evidence, to the convicted’s continued struggle after exoneration.

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Inmates at Chino State Prison in California exercise in the yard. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

In 1991, an unemployed printer named David Ranta was convicted of killing a Hasidic rabbi in Brooklyn.

Last week, Ranta was released from the maximum-security prison in which he’d spent nearly 22 years, after almost every piece of evidence used to convict him fell away. The New York Times reported that the lead detectives on the case “broke rule after rule” — they “kept few written records, coached a witness and took Mr. Ranta’s confession under what a judge described as highly dubious circumstances.”

Last Friday, just a day after he was released, Ranta suffered a serious heart attack.

With Ranta’s case in mind, we’ve rounded up some of the best reporting on wrongful convictions.

CASE FLAWS

Trial By Fire, The New Yorker, September 2009
In 2004, Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham, an unemployed mechanic from Corsicana who had been convicted of killing his three children 12 years earlier by setting fire to his house. But as The New Yorker’s David Grann reports, the arson investigation findings that the prosecutors used to convict Willingham were based on “junk science,” according to a highly acclaimed fire investigator. The jailhouse informant who testified against him was unstable and had a history of addiction and mental illness. The year after Willingham’s execution, a fire scientist hired by a state commission concurred that the original investigators had no scientific basis for claiming the fire was arson.

Are Memphis Prosecutors Trying to Send an Innocent Man Back to Death Row?, The Nation, March 2013
Timothy Terrell McKinney is facing his third trial for the murder of an off-duty police officer in Memphis. His first case was overturned after the prosecution suppressed evidence that questioned McKinney’s guilt. Multiple testimonies now suggest it would be near impossible for McKinney to have committed the murder. But as one local put it, “when it’s a police officer killed here in Memphis, you know, they quick to nail somebody.”

Defendants Left Unaware of Flaws Found in Cases, The Washington Post, April 2012
In the 1990s, reviews by the Justice Department found shoddy testing in FBI labs was producing unreliable evidence. But that news failed to make its way to defendants who may have been wrongfully convicted based on flawed forensics. “Hundreds of defendants nationwide remain in prison or on parole for crimes that might merit exoneration [or] a retrial,” the Washington Post found.

The Hardest Cases: When Children Die, Justice Can Be Elusive, ProPublica, June 2011
Our 2011 investigation with Frontline and NPR found mistakes made by coroners and medical examiners led to the wrongful conviction of numerous babysitters, parents and others for murdering children. Ernie Lopez may be one such case: he was convicted for murdering a 6-month-old girl, despite evidence that later suggested she may have died from a rare blood disease. (Lopez later agreed to a plea deal for a reduced charge.)

Death Row Justice Derailed, The Chicago Tribune, November 1999
The first part of an epic investigation by Ken Armstrong and Steve Mills of how Illinois had sent innocent men to death row. “Capital punishment in Illinois,” Armstrong and Mills reported, “is a system so riddled with faulty evidence, unscrupulous trial tactics and legal incompetence that justice has been forsaken, a Tribune investigation has found.” The series helped convince Gov. George Ryan to put a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois the next year, which remains in effect today.

House of Screams, The Chicago Reader, 1990
Over 20 years ago, journalist John Conroy broke a story that shook the foundation of Chicago’s criminal justice system. Conroy unearthed the routine torture tactics used by then-police commander Jon Burge — from suffocation to electric shocks — that resulted in numerous false confessions and wrongful convictions.

DNA EVIDENCE

The Innocent Man, Parts 1 and 2, Texas Monthly, November 2012
Michael Morton spent a quarter-century wrongfully behind bars for the brutal murder of his wife, Christine. In a two-part investigation, journalist Pamela Colloff reconstructs the exhausting years spent fighting for his innocence: from the fight for DNA testing to his battered relationship with his son.

Who Shot Valerie Finley?, Boston Review, March 2013
An examination of convictions overturned by DNA testing found three-quarters involved mistaken eyewitness identification. The Boston Review examines the case against Rodney Stanberry, accused of shooting 29-year-old Valerie Finley. Finley identified Stanberry as her shooter after awaking in the hospital from a coma. Stanberry was convicted, despite an alibi corroborated by at least six other testimonies. But without DNA evidence, his innocence has been nearly impossible to prove.

A Blind Faith in Eyewitnesses, The Dallas Morning News, October 2008
Wiley Fountain spent 15 years in prison after his rape conviction before DNA testing proved his innocence in 2002. The Dallas Morning News examined his case and those of 18 other exonerated men in Dallas County — which led the nation in DNA exonerations. Of the 19 cases, 18 of them were based on eyewitness testimony, which frequently convinces juries but is often fatally flawed.

DNA Evidence Exonerates Louisiana Death Row Inmate, The Washington Post, September 2012
Damon Thibodeaux, a deckhand on a Mississippi River workboat, spent more than 15 years in solitary confinement on death row in Louisiana, convicted of the rape and murder of his 14-year-old cousin. In September, Douglas A. Blackmon reports, he “became the 300th wrongly convicted person and 18th death-row inmate exonerated in the United States substantially on the basis of DNA evidence.”

AFTER INCARCERATION

Freed Prisoners Lose Their Innocence, The Wisconsin State Journal, December 2011
Prisoners who are exonerated typically don’t receive the same support — a parole officer, mental health treatment, help finding employment — after they’re released that other inmates do, which can make for a hard readjustment. Take Forest Shomberg, The Wisconsin State Journal reports spent six years in jail before a judge overturned his sexual assault conviction on the basis of DNA evidence. But two years later, he was back in prison with a yearlong sentence after a suicide attempt.

The Exonerated, Texas Monthly, November 2008
By 2008, Texas had exonerated 37 men — who had served a combined 525 years in prison — on the basis of DNA evidence. Texas Monthly’s Michael Hall tracked down 32 of them: One has tried to kill himself three time since being released. Half a dozen of them spent more than two decades in prison. One man, James Waller, works in counseling now. “Send me the worst people they got,” he told Hall, “and I can give them a story where they will want to live again.”

Larry Peterson: Beyond Exoneration, NPR, June 2007
NPR’s Robert Siegel spent two years following the case of Larry Peterson, who was convicted of raping and murdering 25-year-old Jacqueline Harrison in 1989. Peterson spent almost 18 years in jail before being freed on the basis of DNA evidence. But two years after his release, Peterson was unemployed and was only beginning the long battle for restitution for his time in prison. And Patricia Harrison, Jacqueline’s sister, still believes he did it. “If I had my way, he’d be dead,” she told Siegel.

Did we miss any important investigations? Let us know in the comments below.

Colin Warner, New York City 1980. A friend of his did the investigation that law enforcement never did. Freed after 21 years.

http://www.citylimits.org/news/articles/2116/the-courage-of-his-conviction

Please include the Bruce Lisker case in Los Angeles, California.  Details can be found in articles from the L.A. Times.

Gabriel Tynes

March 27, 2013, 10 a.m.

Lagniappe (Mobile, Ala.) previously published a story about Rodney Stanberry http://classic.lagniappemobile.com/article.asp?articleID=2332 and has subsequently questioned the prosecution of death row inmate William John Ziegler for a vicious stabbing death in 2000: http://classic.lagniappemobile.com/article.asp?articleID=5961 Ziegler was recently awarded a new trial, an order the Alabama AG is currently fighting.

Wesley L. Frederickson

March 27, 2013, 10:33 a.m.

Diane Downs sits in prison convicted of shooting her three children, killing on and seriously injuring the other two,  The prosecuting attorney adopted the two surviving children.  Uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents were not given the right to adopt the two surviving children.  The grandparents sent a letter requesting visitation rights and were sent a letter by the prosecuting attorney’s own attorney denying visitation rights.

Go to:  www,dianedowns.com

You might be surprised.

It seems wrong to not even mention the Innocence Project, where they get involved in such cases and related laws regularly and keep a database (innocenceproject.org/know/Browse-Profiles.php) of cases they find interesting.

What about Broward County Florida? Home to more exonerations than anywhere else—Jerry Frank Townsend, Frank Lee Smith, John Purvis, Tim Brown and now Anthony Caravella—under 37-year State Attorney Michael Satz.

http://www.browardbulldog.org/2009/10/anatomy-of-a-frame-up/

http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2013-03-26/news/sfl-anthony-caravella-jury-finds-two-officer-liable-20130326_1_anthony-caravella-diane-cuddihy-ada-cox-jankowski

I was one of the experts (Police Procedures) in WA v Rafay and Burns—http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_v._Burns—who were convicted of triple homicide and sentenced to three life sentences each. In my opinion the two are innocent and were found guilty due to really, really bad lawyering.  If someone wants to follow up on this don’t hesitate to give me a call.

Michael Levine Consulting and Investigations
    Tel: 845-687-9642
    Fax: 845-687-4916
  Cell: 845-430-3930
          http://www.policetrialexpert.com

The case of Johnathon Montgomery, falsely accused of sexual assault. After diligent reporting by Peter Dujardin, Ashley Kelly, Hugh Lessig at the Daily Press in Virginia, and editorials that counted down how many days Montgomery was still in prison despite evidence of innocence, Gov. Bob McDonnell pardoned Montgomery so he could be home in time for Thanksgiving in November, 2012.

Here is just one of many stories.

http://www.articles.dailypress.com/2012-12-20/news/dp-nws-montgomery-court-case-lookback-20121220_1_johnathon-montgomery-elizabeth-coast-sexual-assault

What about the Norfolk Four. They should have been taken back into the military and been permitted to resume their careers. And Frankly, I think they should have received rank and backpay!

Thank you for including Beth Schwartzapfel’s excellent reporting.

I would also include Gabriel O’Malley’s excellent article on the wrongful execution of Texas resident Carlos DeLuna ...

http://www.bostonreview.net/BR37.5/gabriel_omalley_los_tocayos_carlos_deluna_death_penalty_innocence.php

FYI, Beth Schwartzapfel just wrote a short follow-up examining conviction integrity units, the David Ranta case, and how such units compare to North Carolina’s Innocence Inquiry Commission ...

http://www.bostonreview.net/BR37.5/gabriel_omalley_los_tocayos_carlos_deluna_death_penalty_innocence.php

I would never try to equate Dickie Lynn’s story - he actually committed his crimes and is, arguably, right where he should be - with folks who have been wrongfully convicted. However, he is doing life without receiving the benefit of a sentence review and I think there is good reason to believe its because the justice system is being wrongfully vengeful and petty.

Apprehended: The Trials of Dickie Lynn:
http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BVL9PXA

Stephanie Simon

March 27, 2013, 5:49 p.m.

June 2011 “The High Price of Wrongful Convictions” also by John Conroy. http://www.bettergov.org/investigations/wrongful_convictions_1.aspx

Roberto Hernandez

March 27, 2013, 6:14 p.m.

I would love to see some international journalism on wrongful convictions. To get started:
Mexico:
http://www.pbs.org/pov/presumedguilty/

My client, Robert Marshall, was wrongfully arrested and imprisoned for 17 months on false charges that were all dropped.  He was held without bail during those 17 months because the Windham County States Attorney claimed he was dangerous, despite the fact that he had no record of violent behavior.  Most importantly, he lost custody of his now 10 year old daughter because of the arrest and incarceration.  He was a single father.  The little girl’s mother died of breast cancer about 3 years ago.

He has been released for about a year now, but he is still being denied custody of his daughter, based on the fact that he was incarcerated, therefore unable to care for her.  It sounds logical until one considers the fact that the reason for his incarceration were false charges, trumped up, in part, to enable the VT Dept of Children and Families to take custody of his daughter.

He has made some progress with reunification with his daughter, but in VT, parenting a child when you are a father is a punishable offense.

Marvin S. Robinson, II

March 27, 2013, 6:47 p.m.

Tragic.  On one side of the “CoiN” we have zero appreciation for putting chronically severely UNEMPLOYED Veterans and American Citizens back to to FULL TIME Employment with live-able wages and meaningful salaries like was implemented during the GREAT DEPRESSION ERA through the W.P.A.
While on the other side of the “CoiN” so many people of our African American brothers and men and youth incarcerated: and no one seems to utter a smidgeon about: JOBS transferred over-seas and to and in other countries; while the PRISONS are not only allowed to be PRIVATIZED, but take regular jobs that a community could really benefit from having in regular neighborhoods / communities to put AMERICANs to work.
PRIVATIZED Prisons get some sort of contract and pays the inmates, “crumbs - of - CRUMBS “, how do we get these awful, TRAGIC, SHAMEFUL, circumstances CORRECTED ?
And when companies come in and POLLUTE our air and water and soils and then go on to another community for the round of TAX incentives.
POPULATION CONTROL: is mild and too non-descriptive, then the news media sings songs about the new AMERCIAN DREAN seekers work -harder and just want the American Dream.  NO LOBBYIST on “K” Street in Washington, D.C. for those in EXTREME POVERTY and even WORST for those massive numbers of human breathing beings ( all of who still have SOULS )-
ALL we can really do, is continue to add onto our LIST of PRAYERS for God to hear our pleas to resore HUMANITY with the justice of JUSTICE, with peace, BLESSINGS and a new fertile propserity that only in AMERICA can we turn these types of tragedies into TRIUMPHANT re-course.  Simply becasue the fiber of our nation’s D.N.A. has already proven, that we are people and country of CONSCIENCE, plus the future requires - more of US.  Thank you,

Marvin S. Robinson, II
Quindaro Ruins / Underground Railroad- Exercise 2013

A Wisconsin judge threw out the arson conviction of a tavern owner, when Joseph Awe was nearing the end of his prison term. 

See Wisconsin State Journal story outlining an insurance company’s influence in the finding of arson:  http://bit.ly/11R3jwN

Everybody is talking about the shamefully wrong convictions of innocent people and how much money the wrongfully convicted person is entitiled. No one is talking about the shameful police and prosecutorial misconduct and why aren’t these people going to jail? They have purposely distroyed human lives and they get a free pass while so many have to suffer. It’s time to push for legislation that would send law enforcement personnel, prosecutors and all other persons envolved in the falsifying and suppresing of information, to PRISON

Shirley Sanservino

March 30, 2013, 1:48 p.m.

Since 2007 I have investigated the sudden, unattended death of my son Raymond Zachry.  He was in excellent health.  However,the coroner continually refuses to allow a death investigation even though a huge amount of two poison were found in the tox reports. One of the reports was redacted and the quantity changed, the other has a mysterious notation that it is a false positive - no date, no signature and no one admits to writing the note. 

Coroners and medical examiners have no oversight other than their own coroner association.  They often have no medical education or experience yet they can determine if a guilty person goes free and an innocent one is sentenced to prison.

There must be accountability and oversight by an independent volunteer group.

http://www.denied-justice.com for documents.

6 men from Colorado Springs known as the IRP6 wrongfully accused. Judge says the transcripts were destroyed which proves she violated their 5th amendment and the innocence of these 6 men.

Please take a look at the case and help us be a voice for the injustice in this country.

http://freetheirp6.wix.com/freetheirp6

http://www.a-justcause.com/#

wrongful convictions must stop

Please visit freetheirp6.org

6 innocent men wrongly accused in Colorado Springs. Judge violated their 5th amendment rights, denied evidence, tampered with jury, says portions of the transcripts were destroyed… just to name a few.

While these innocent men sit in prison, please help us be a voice for them to help stop the injustice in this country! If we all come together for one purpose the kingdom of wrongful convictions and the injustice in America.

Please view the 2 websites below to get the full story

a-justcause.com

freetheirp6.org

A few cases renowned journalist and Point Park University Professor William Moushey and his students at the Innocence Institute have worked on successfully:

Drew Whitley exonerated by DNA evidence:
http://innocenceinstitute.org/blog/whitley-finds-the-cost-of-freedom/

David Munchinski’s murder conviction voided:
http://innocenceinstitute.org/blog/munchinski’s-free/

Terrell Johnson acquitted after 18 years of incarceration:
http://innocenceinstitute.org/blog/johnson-wins-freedom/

Justin Kirkwood -Lawrence County President Judge Dominick Motto accused a Lawrence County prosecutor of creating a “ruse designed to confuse” Kirkwood’s jury:
http://innocenceinstitute.org/blog/kirkwood-free/

2 groundbreaking cases, one of which reached the Supreme Court and the national stage in the early 60s involved racially motivated convictions and death sentences for 3 young black men - brothers John and James Giles and their friend Joe Johnson - accused of raping a white girl in Montgomery County Maryland.  Thanks to a massive effort by citizens’ groups, police and prosecutors in the end were proven to have altered records, suborned false testimony and suppressed evidence known or available only to them.  The outrageous facts of this case, known as the Giles-Johnson case, were well reported by the Montgomery Sentinel and the Washington Post while other Washington papers came out in favor of the conviction and sentencing. 

These young men were kept in prison 6 years, three of them on death row, well after the original prosecutor had made the minimal admission of “negligence” in the case.  This was a landmark case that resulted in sweeping changes to disclosure rules and other features of Maryland’s criminal justice system.  It was comprehensively described in the book “An American Rape,” by James Giles (one of the brothers) and A. Robert Smith in 1973.

Byron Case, a Kansas City MO man convicted of murder based solely on the testimony of his drug-addicted ex-girlfriend. She changed her story 3 years after the murder to say he did it - one week after he moved to another city to avoid her harassment.

No evidence links him to the crime: blood, ballistics or any other physical evidence.

His public defender admitted in an appeals hearing that he had been ineffective counsel.

Yet Byron remains behind bars 12 years later.

http://www.freebyroncase.com

Aslam Karachiwala

April 10, 2013, 10:08 p.m.

The case of Dale Helmig of Missouri:
http://www.thecrimereport.org/archive/2011-06-anatomy-of-a-wrongful-conviction-case (dated June 30, 2011)
Convicted and imprisoned for the 1993 murder of his mother, Norma, Helmig was freed last December after Dekalb County Missouri Circuit Court Judge Warren McElwain found “clear and convincing evidence” of his innocence. But Helmig might well still be in prison—if it had not been for the tenacious efforts of   investigative reporters in Missouri and elsewhere in the country.

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