Last month, Frank Sterling was exonerated by DNA evidence after being incarcerated 18 years for a crime he did not commit. Sterling was wrongfully convicted of murdering an elderly woman in Rochester, New York in 1988. His conviction was based entirely on a false confession. In the meantime the actual killer remained free, and six years later he murdered four-year-old Kali Poulton. This tragedy leaves no question that addressing the flaws in our criminal justice system that lead to wrongful convictions is a public safety imperative.
On April 5th Ohio Governor Ted Strickland signed a reform bill that will help reduce wrongful convictions and improve the fairness and accuracy of our criminal justice system. Among the measures included are safeguards to improve the eyewitness identification process by requiring police to use a more accurate protocol for administering live and photo lineups. The new protocol reflects the growing awareness that eyewitness evidence is fragile, and much like trace physical evidence must be collected very carefully, or it may become tainted.
San Francisco’s top public defender, Jeff Adachi, recently called for the city’s crime lab to become independent of the police department. This announcement comes on the heels of a series of scandals in the San Francisco Police Department’s forensic laboratory initiated by the discovery that a criminalist was stealing cocaine from evidence storage facilities. What initially seemed to be a problem with one unethical employee has led to the unearthing of myriad problems within the lab, including two cases of tainted DNA samples. Moreover, a troubling audit was released showing an improper maintenance of chain of custody of evidence, inadequate record keeping, and a lack of cleanliness in the overall facility.
Earlier this month, Orleans Parish District Judge Lynda Van Davis granted a new trial for Michael Anderson, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in a trial plagued with problematic evidence. Prosecutors have appealed the ruling and indicated that they will go forward with a retrial if necessary, so the question of Anderson’s guilt or innocence is far from settled. What is clear today, however, is that his first trial was marked by prosecutors’ troubling concealment of important information that undermined the credibility of key witnesses against him. Playing fast and loose with such evidence is unacceptable. In a death penalty case, it is unconscionable.
After seventeen years, Gregory Taylor was finally freed on February 17th when the three judge panel of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission unanimously ruled to exonerate him. North Carolina created the commission to investigate and evaluate post-conviction claims of innocence in 2006 and is the first of its kind in the United States. Taylor, wrongfully convicted of first degree murder in 1993, is the first person to be exonerated by the commission.
Concerns about the validity of forensic evidence have come to the fore in recent years following a series of wrongful convictions and other scandals across the country. The National Academies of Science (NAS) identified a number of systemic flaws that demand attention in their 2009 report Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward. Yet today, hardly any states have laws providing meaningful oversight of the forensic laboratories that analyze crucial evidence upon which many criminal cases depend.
On the last day of 2009, federal district court judge Ricardo Urbina dismissed homicide charges against five former Blackwater security guards involved in a shooting that killed fourteen Iraqi civilians in 2007. Judge Urbina’s decision cites egregious prosecutorial misconduct by the federal prosecutors handling the case as the reason for the dismissal. The dismissal comes at the end of a year that saw at least a dozen cases of federal prosecutorial misconduct, including the well known Ted Stevens fiasco. These cases and others reinforce an emerging consensus that we must do more to ensure that our prosecutors live up to the standards of professionalism and fairness on which our system depends.
A spate of recent news reports has called into question the objectivity of some forensic evidence and highlighted the need for effective oversight mechanisms for the nation’s crime labs. Fingerprint analysts told The Missouri Lawyer that when police officers have access to the labs, they often pressure the fingerprint examiners to secure arrests. In December, the New York State Inspector General released a report revealing that forensic analyst Gary Veeder falsified hundreds of results over a fifteen year period. The Phoenix, Arizona Police Department announced plans to investigate claims that lab technicians in the crime lab undermine the integrity of criminal investigations by leaving evidence behind at scenes and disposing of fingerprint evidence. In December, Donald Gates walked free from prison after his exoneration for a rape and murder he did not commit when it was revealed that FBI lab technician Michael Malone provided false testimony and inaccurate testing results.
As advocates of justice, prosecutors play a unique and powerful role in our justice system. Yet too often, prosecutors fall prey to a pervasive “convict at all costs” culture, and neglect their ethical duty to protect the innocent and guard the rights of the accused.
Shoddy forensic science has led to a major setback in a murder investigation that could close the door on efforts to bring the killer to justice. The family of murder victim Suzanne Jovin was recently informed that the DNA evidence in her case was useless because it was contaminated by a lab technician. A DNA sample collected from under Jovin’s fingernails after her 1998 murder was found to match that of the lab worker that processed the evidence, not her killer as was previously assumed.