When a witness fingers a suspect, they aren’t always accurate. As a matter of fact, many cases that are later found to be wrongful convictions involve a mistaken eyewitness identification. In an effort to reduce the number of mistakes and to improve the process by which witnesses choose suspects, the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services is changing its policies. [Read more…]
Before DNA testing was widely available, establishing guilt in a sex offense wasn’t just a matter of testing bodily fluids. Instead, much of the evidence used to convict suspects included things like eyewitness testimony and identification—things that aren’t error proof. According to a new study from the Urban Institute, numerous convictions during this time may have been in error.
The Urban Institute looked at sex assault cases between 1973 and 1987. They found as many as 33 people convicted of such assaults during that time are likely innocent. This is a wrongful conviction rate of 8 to 15%, an astronomical figure when you are talking about the damage done to these people’s lives. [Read more…]
When an eyewitness points their finger at a suspect, indicating that they are the culprit, it can be a powerful thing. But often, eyewitness identifications are wrong. In Virginia, 14 people have been exonerated by DNA evidence after their conviction—11 of the cases involved eyewitness misidentification.
In an effort to reduce misidentifications and ultimately wrongful convictions, the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services has revised its model policy for eyewitness id’s and police lineups, drafting a plan that will make it clear to agencies across the state just how they are expected to handle such police work. [Read more…]
Ideally, when you are innocent of a crime, you shouldn’t have to serve prison time for it. Even if you are convicted, which does happen, there should be safeguards in place to ensure you have access to relief through the appeals process. This is an ideal situation. Unfortunately, in most states we are operating at far less than the ideal.
The Virginia law that allows convicts access to exoneration is being criticized as being poorly written. Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, in a position that normally backs all conviction, says that parts of the law are definitely “worthy of reconsideration.”
According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the flaw isn’t involving cases where there is DNA or similar evidence, but in those where there is only non-biological evidence. In such cases, the attorney for the allegedly wrongfully convicted must prove to the courts “by clear and convincing evidence that no reasonable juror would find beyond a reasonable doubt” that this person committed the crime.
In discussing the hurdles one has to go through to overcome a wrongful conviction, Cuccinelli said, “It needs to be a high bar, by the process by which it’s handled and the hoops you have to get through, I think, are worthy of reconsideration.”
The issue with the law concerning nonbiological evidence is that it includes both a “clear and convincing” standard and also a “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard, both of which are pretty high. In addition, the rule is written in an awkward manner, making it even more difficult.
Interestingly Cuccinelli was one of the state senators at the time who wrote and passed the law.
The most recent case, and only one of two to have successfully used the law was that of Thomas E. Haynesworth. Haynesworth served 27 years in prison for several crimes he didn’t commit. He was convicted in 1984 at the age of 18 for attacking four women. DNA evidence later proved his neighbor, who resembled him and had his same blood type, was actually guilty in at least two of the attacks. There was no DNA evidence in the final two cases.
It took several years and much work for Haynesworth to be exonerated for the other two crimes, but it did happen and he was only the second in the state to be granted a writ of actual innocence based on non-biological evidence.
Cuccinelli said the case proved, “the system isn’t perfect, and neither are we.”
When you are mistakenly accused of a criminal offense, you never think it would result in you spending years behind bars. You assume that things will be worked out long before then.
Whether you are wrongfully accused of violating a protection order or if they “got the wrong guy” in a robbery case, you need a tireless advocate working on your behalf. Call today for a legal consultation.
Last month we reported on the prospect of many old cases being revived by newly discovered and tested. But it seems little is being done to notify or rectify any situations where the DNA points to a possible wrongful conviction. According to the Richmond Times Dispatch, 29 felons have still not been notified that the potentially exonerating DNA exists in their case.
The Virginia Department of Forensic Science, through the testing of hundreds of DNA samples and the digging through over 500,000 old case files, discovered 76 cases in which newly found DNA excluded the felon convicted in the case. In other words, DNA at the scene was not theirs.
The impact of such a finding would, of course, depend on the facts of the case, and not always would it point to a wrongful conviction. The chance, however, exists, and if the chance is there, the convicted person has a right to know.
Yet, 29 people have not been notified of the evidence.
Those who are still incarcerated were easy to locate. Those who were long ago released, however, are posing problems for the state. One such person, listed as “missing” on the Department of Forensic Science’s list was found with a simple Internet search, living only 5 miles from the place where he was arrested for a 1978 rape.
Bennett S. Barbour served 4 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit, and it was this study digging into old case files that ultimately exonerated him. But, the state new about this since June 2010, and he just found out last month.
“We haven’t exactly hear reports of any commonwealth’s attorneys making some announcement about what they claim to be doing in one of these cases,” says Brandon Garrett, a professor at U.Va.’s School of Law, who believes prosecutors aren’t doing enough to resolve any of these old cases.
In most of the cases, the local prosecutor is notified of the DNA evidence and the state then backs off, leaving any further action to the prosecutor. If that prosecutor doesn’t have the time, or doesn’t make the time to track down the felon, they never hear about the evidence or their potential exoneration.
Letters have been mailed out to all those for which an address could be found. But, according to Garrett, those letters are confusing and may even come across as threatening. They do not tell people that they have been excluded as suspects by DNA evidence, and instead merely say that DNA evidence has been located and tested, providing a telephone number to the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project if further help is wanted.
Being accused of a crime you didn’t commit is frightening. Being convicted of that offense is a tragedy. It seems the state owes these people more than a half-assed attempt at locating and a form letter, but they don’t see it that way.
If you are accused of a crime you didn’t commit—whether it’s a drug charge or something far more serious—we may be able to help. Contact our offices today to discuss the details of your case and the options that are available to you.
In the days before CSI showed us the forensic value of a piece of chewing gum, the science that led to convictions was far less error-proof. Things like blood typing and teeth marks were about as high-tech as you could get in fingering a suspect. Now, however, science has changed and because of this, the potential for wrongful convictions has likely fallen. But a look back on past cases may show just how common such mistakes were back in the days before DNA testing became so commonplace.
A unique opportunity to test DNA samples on past cases arose when a “trove” of old case files including biological evidence was uncovered in the Virginia Department of Forensic Science. The case files dated from 1973 through 1988 and hadn’t yet been put through the DNA wringer.
On a federal grant, the samples were sent to the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute for evaluation. Those samples are still being tested and compiled and the final report will likely come later in this year.
Estimates, however, show that the rate of wrongful convictions during the time period of those case files to be around 6%, a shockingly high number. “I would have guessed an error rate of 1 or 2 percent,” said Samuel R. Gross professor of University of Michigan Law School and former defense lawyer. “This is a very big surprise.”
Thirty-seven cases out of the original 638 are said to possibly support exoneration, and definitely warrant further investigation, according to John Roman, senior fellow with the researching Justice Policy Center. As of yet, nothing has been done with those cases in the way of exonerations, however.
Currently, researchers are running with those 37 cases to courthouses and sifting through old files to verify if mistakes were made and if the DNA evidence could eventually lead to exonerations in these decades-old cases. After all of the evidence is gathered, it will be presented to “an expert prosecutor, a defense lawyer, and a former judge” to for final evaluation.
The use of DNA evidence isn’t error proof, but it’s far more reliable than blood typing and could mean the difference between an innocent person spending the rest of their life in prison, or living it out normally. The time period being looked at by this study is particularly interesting because such evidence wasn’t used back then.
Though DNA isn’t available in all cases, other evidence can similarly eliminate you from a suspect pool. Discussing your case with a defense attorney is the first step in learning how the evidence in your particular situation can help or hurt you in court.
If you’ve been accused of a criminal offense in Virginia, contact our offices today to discuss your case.