2014 was a record year for post-trial exonerations

January 29, 2015

Criminal justice is an oxymoron, but sometimes the legal system gets it right. Unfortunately, getting it right often does not happen until after the case is over.

In the better-late-than-never category, Mother Jones is reporting,

In 2014, 125 people across the United States who had been convicted of crimes were exonerated—the highest number ever recorded,according to a new report from the National Regestry of Exonerations at the University of Michigan Law School. The 2014 number included 48 who had been convicted of homicide, 6 of whom were on death row awaiting execution. Ricky Jackson of Ohio spent 39 years behind bars, the longest known prison term for an exoneree, according to the NRE. Jackson was sentenced to death in 1975 after false testimony implicated him in a robbery-murder he did not commit. Texas led the nation with 39 exonerations; it is followed by New York (17), Illinois (7), and Michigan (7). The federal government exonerated eight people.

Most of these post trial exonerations were obtained by so-called conviction integrity units (CIUs) created and staffed by prosecutors. There are 15 now in existence with more to come.

The Harris County CIU, which encompasses Houston, is responsible for 33 of last year’s exonerations. In early 2014, it reviewed drug cases it had prosecuted after learning that many people who had pled guilty to possession had not, in fact, possessed actual drugs. The Harris CIU’s findings reflected another trend: 58 exonerations this year, nearly half of the total, were so-called “no-crime exonerations,” which means, according to the NRE, “an accident or a suicide was mistaken for a crime, or…the exoneree was accused of a fabricated crime that never happened.”

Channel 5 News in Cleveland reports,

In Baltimore, the State’s Attorney’s office helped vacate the conviction of a man 46 years after he was convicted of murder. In Cleveland, three men convicted of a 1975 murder they didn’t commit were cleared, setting a new record of time behind bars for an exoneree: 39 years, 3 months 9 days. In Tulsa, DNA testing showed a mother hadn’t killed her 15-month-old baby, leading prosecutors to dismiss charges after nearly 20 years. And in Detroit, a man was released after police got a tip that the wrong person had been convicted in a 2006 murder.

Now we need to improve on getting it right the first time.

But if you’re black, you better not count on it because, if you call 911 seeking help, you are apt to get killed.


Crime Lab Fraud

October 23, 2012

This post is by Crane-Station

By now, most of us have heard of Massachusetts crime lab chemist Annie Dookhan. Ms. Dookhan was arrested in September for allegedly obstructing justice by falsifying her lab work, providing false testimony and lying about her credentials. The lab has shut down and the investigation is ongoing. Her fake work may have affected as many as 60,000 lab results involving as many as 34,000 accused. Many wrongfully convicted inmates have already been released. Ms. Dookhan faces 20 years in prison if she is convicted.

In my opinion, twenty years is a slap on the wrist, given the egregious amount of damage a wrongful conviction inflicts on a person’s life and family. A twenty-year sentence for a crime of nonviolence can in reality only amount to as little as three to four years served before parole eligibility. I am personally in favor of per se zero-tolerance laws regarding forensic fraud: Any time a lab analyst falsifies lab results, falsely claims not to have the ability to test for items, lies about education or credentials, presents fake, made-up science to juries, or passes him or herself off as an ‘expert’ in clinical medicine and presents inappropriate and false clinical testimony to juries, that person should be subject to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Such actions amount to nothing less than rape, under color of a white coat.

The Massachusetts lab scandal is anything but unique. Most of the media attention to forensic fraud thus far has been related to DNA technology and exonerations, however. Now it is time to look at non-DNA lab analyst fraud that, while it may not lead to a death sentence, it does lead to irreversible destruction of lives and careers.

Many of you know that I was convicted of a DUI in Kentucky with no bad driving and two exculpatory lab results, indicating 1) 0.00 alcohol content of blood and 2) “no drugs detected” in the blood. This DUI led to other charges and convictions related to a controlled substance the arresting officer supposedly ‘found’ in his cruiser after an hour-and-a-half long roadside search of my vehicle and my person revealed no illegal substances. I received an eight-year sentence.

At trial the prosecution advanced its theory: that I was dangerously impaired on my prescription medication, Klonopin. The dangerous impairment was obvious: I had supposedly “failed” a roadside HGN (horizontal gaze nystagmus) test. The reason the lab missed such a high level of this commonly prescribed medicine is that 1) the lab had no idea what to look for and 2) the lab had no way of testing for its presence and 3) if only the lab had known, it would have sent the blood to a third-party contract lab.

Six-and-one-half years after the arrest and affirmed convictions, I began looking at the trial testimony in my own case. I also made some inquiries. I learned, to my utter horror, that the lab did, in fact, have notification to look for this drug in my blood. I also learned that the crime labs typically do presumptive testing for substances. If nothing is detected during the preliminary testing, there is no need for confirmatory further identification and quantification because the drug in question was either 1) not present or 2) not present at any level of toxicological (or therapeutic) value or interest. I learned from a conversation with the maker of Klonopin that any trial testimony departure from the FDA-approved product insert is inappropriate.

At my trial, after misleading the jury in my case about the lab’s notification that this was indeed a drug to look for, as it was listed which as a valid prescription at the time of the arrest, the lab analyst put on his physician’s hat and provided a rather impressive false testimonial about 1) the drug’s “immediate effects” at therapeutic levels, including, but not limited to “both vertical and horizontal gaze nystagmus.” His testimony stands in stark contrast to the FDA-approved product insert (separating adverse events into two distinct and clear categories), the peer-reviewed PubMed literature, wherein at least fourteen articles discuss the use of this drug for therapeutic treatment of various types of pathological nystagmus, as well as at least one study specifically addressing impaired driving that found no correlation between HGN and Klonopin. All of these studies were completed and published before the lab analyst took the stand and provided the testimony that led to my convictions. To bolster his credibility and qualifications he offered a nonsensical explanation that sounded sort of technical nonetheless by stating that the “chlorine atom makes it so that liquid-liquid extraction is incapable of pulling [Klonopin] out of the blood.”* Having taken Organic Chemistry myself and having grown up with a father who co-founded a clinical laboratory in the Northwest, I was, to mildly understate, shocked to see these words come out of a lab worker’s mouth, when I reviewed the tapes.

If I get nothing else across in this post, I would like to convey some key concepts as follows. Forget CSI. Just because someone calls him or herself an ‘expert,’ a ‘chemist’ or an ‘analyst’ does not mean that they are. A white coat is meaningless. Crime labs are most often another police department and nothing more. Lab analysts are techs working for the prosecution and if they have to misrepresent an unambiguous exculpatory result as somehow inculpatory, they will. If they have to make up science, they will, just to get a conviction at all costs. With nothing more than a bachelor’s degree at most, crime lab analysts can and will misrepresent themselves and testify as clinical ‘experts,’ even if, as in my case, they have never seen or tested for the drug in question. Crime labs receive millions of dollars from the government (Paul Coverdell grants) with little or no oversight or accountability. When you give your blood in accordance with your state statutes, please, please, do not ever assume that you will be ‘cleared’ if the results come back negative. It is absolutely essential that you get extra tubes of blood drawn and sent to a competent clinical laboratory.

For further reading on this issue, please visit this University of Virginia Law Review article:

http://virginialawreview.org/content/pdfs/95/1.pdf

*During jury selection (voir dire) in my case, the prosecutor excused a prospective juror who was a chemical engineer because the prosecutor did not want someone with knowledge of chemistry to serve on my jury.


Forensic Fraud in Massachusetts Casts Doubt on Thousands of Drug Convictions

October 11, 2012

Forensic fraud is one of the seven causes of wrongful convictions of innocent people. The others are (1) mistaken eyewitness testimony, (2) police misconduct, (3) prosecutorial misconduct, (4) ineffective assistance of counsel, (5) false confessions by innocent defendants, and (6) false testimony by jailhouse informants.

Annie Dookhan, a former analyst in a crime laboratory in Massachusetts, recently confessed to police that she had falsely reported that she had detected the presence of a controlled substance in a drug exhibit without performing the necessary test or she had tampered with a drug exhibit that had tested negative for the presence of a controlled substance by adding a known controlled substance to it before retesting the exhibit to assure that she would detect that controlled substance when she ran the test a second time.

Dookhan admitted that she committed this fraudulent misconduct in 34,000 cases involving 60,000 evidentiary exhibits.

Police also discovered that she had misrepresented her academic credentials during her employment at the crime lab by falsely claiming that she had obtained a masters degree in chemistry from the University of Massachusetts at Boston. She started working at the lab in 2003.

The Boston Herald recently reported,

Annie Dookhan, the former state chemist at the center of a massive lab scandal which may jeopardize thousands of drug cases, could face decades behind bars if convicted, said Attorney General Martha Coakley.

Dookhan, 34, pleaded not guilty this afternoon in Boston Municipal Court to two counts of obstruction of justice and falsely pretending to hold a degree from a college or university. She posted $10,000 bail late this afternoon.

Prosecutors said today Dookhan would sprinkle cocaine on negative test results, test them again, and report the positive finding; and test a few samples out of a batch of 25 and list them all as positive.

Governor Deval Patrick closed down the Hinton State Laboratory Institute in Jamaica Plain where Dookhan was employed and he appointed former prosecutor David Meier to review all of the cases that she worked on during her employment at the lab. Meier recently said he has identified 1,140 people presently incarcerated whose cases were handled by Dookhan.

Since crime labs usually destroy controlled substances after the cases are resolved, retesting evidence that she handled may not be possible in many cases.

Dookhan’s ongoing fraud was discovered in June 2011 after supervisory personnel at the lab discovered she had altered laboratory records after the fact in an effort to show that she had logged out and returned a drug exhibit to the laboratory safe after testing it.

The Boston Herald reported,

On June 21, 2011, one day after supervisors of the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute chemist — identified by multiple criminal lawyers as Annie Dookhan — found no trace of her logging drugs in and out and of an evidence room for testing on June 14, the record-keeping “irregularities” were suddenly fixed, Linda Han, head of the Department of Public Health lab, wrote in a Feb. 21 letter this year to Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey.

“On June 21st, when the log book was re-examined, entries did appear showing a transfer of the samples from the evidence office to the chemist. It appeared that these entries were made by the chemist after June 14,” Han told the district attorney, noting the chemist was immediately stripped of her lab duties.


Behold President Obama: The Cowardly Assassin-In-Chief

June 7, 2012

Since the New York Times published an article about President Obama’s assassination-by-drone program, several writers, including Glenn Greenwald (here, here, here, here, and here), Tom Engelhardt (here), and Kevin Gosztola (here, here, here, here here and here) have posted articles condemning it.

I am appalled and sickened by Obama’s definition of a “militant” as any male of military age within the strike zone, unless posthumously determined to be innocent. This is a conclusive presumption of guilt and death sentence based on apparent age, gender and presence near an intended target, or in the case of signature strikes, mere association with others who also fit the definition and profile of a militant.

There is no discernible difference between this policy and the Vietnam War policy,

Kill ’em all and let God sort them out.

The decision to target a specific individual depends on the information available about that individual which may come from a variety of sources who are reliable and unreliable. The Attorney General and the President of the United States, who is a former Constitutional Law professor, assure us that the process by which the president decides whom to kill satisfies the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Yet, the president does nothing more than review a Power Point production with a photo of the individual under consideration with a bullet point list of alleged roles and activities in which he has engaged.

I was a criminal defense attorney for 30 years defending people charged with felonies, including death penalty offenses, and a law professor for three years teaching Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure and Causes of Wrongful Convictions. I can assure y’all that the process by which he makes these decisions is materially indistinguishable from a Star Chamber Proceeding. That is precisely what the Due Process Clause was intended and designed to prevent.

Do not ever forget that the Due Process Clause includes the Sixth Amendment right to counsel and the right to present a defense. One cannot have due process without those rights.

Even with those rights, the presumption of innocence and a jury trial, innocent people are wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit. According to the Cardozo Innocence Project, 292 people innocent people have been exonerated by post-conviction DNA evidence.

The seven causes of wrongful convictions are:

1. Mistaken eyewitness testimony;

2. Police Misconduct;

3. Prosecutorial Misconduct;

4. False Confessions;

5. Forensic Fraud;

6. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel; and

7. Jailhouse Informant Testimony

Note that only a small percentage of cases have biological evidence where it is possible to conduct a DNA test that will inculpate or exculpate a defendant. The seven causes of wrongful convictions can cause a wrongful conviction in any case.

The Department of Justice surveyed all public and private DNA labs in the country in the early 90s to determine how often each lab exculpated a prime suspect with a DNA test. The average rate varied little from lab to lab, whether public or private. The average rate was 22.5%

To nevertheless murder people without any meaningful process according to ridiculously overbroad definition of a militant is at best reckless homicide and at worst premeditated murder. Given its continuing use despite a high civilian casualty rate makes it premeditated murder.

To accept and allow this contrived exception to due process to stand is to tolerate an exception that swallows the rule. No American should tolerate it and no American should vote for the man who issues the order to kill. He is a murderer, a war criminal and utterly unfit to serve as President of the United States.

Anyone who votes for him will walk out of the voting booth with innocent blood on their hands.

Innocent blood that will never wash out.

I have another reason that motivated me to write this article.

President Obama obviously authorized the story in the New York Times because there is an election coming up in November and he wanted to portray himself as the candidate with the right stuff, ready, able and willing to make courageous and necessary decisions to keep all Americans safe.

But it does not take courage to order others to kill ’em all and let God sort them out, posthumously. And it does not take courage to look at a set of Power Point slides and, like a Roman emperor, issue a thumbs up or thumbs down sign.

Those are the acts of a murderous coward afraid of losing an election.

EDIT: I added links to a series of excellent articles by Kevin Gosztola that I inadvertently omitted from my original post. Thanks to Elliott at Firedoglake for the reminder.


%d bloggers like this: