After several years of painstaking work, the National Registry of Exonerations is a reality.
A joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and Northwestern University Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, the Registry is the largest collection of exonerations in the United States with nearly 900 individual cases since 1989, the year of the first DNA exoneration in America.
The Registry issued a report analyzing these cases as well as the exonerations of more than 1,100 defendants following convictions stemming from 13 separate police corruption scandals (such as the drug task force scandal in Tulia, Texas, and the Rampart scandal in Los Angeles).
In December 2011, I began to work on the Registry, researching and writing cases.
The total number of defendants exonerated during the 23-year period totals roughly 2,000 — an average of about one a week.
The cases in the Registry offer important insights into the false conviction phenomenon — insights that hopefully will foster criminal justice reforms designed to improve the accuracy and fairness of the criminal justice system.
Perjury, faulty eyewitness identification and prosecutorial misconduct are the leading reasons for wrongful convictions, according to the first national registry of exonerations compiled by university researchers.
The database, assembled in a collaboration by the University of Michigan and Northwestern University, has identified 873 faulty convictions in the past 23 years that have been recognized by prosecutors, judges or governors.
The registry’s founders say the numbers, which do not include many cases in which innocent suspects plead guilty to avoid the risk of more serious punishments or cases that have been dismissed because of legal error without new evidence of innocence, represent only a fraction of the problem in the nation’s criminal justice system.
“What this shows is that the criminal justice system makes mistakes, and they are more common than people think,” said University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross, the registry’s editor. “It is not the rule, but we won’t learn to get better unless we pay attention to these cases.”
Despite the data, the registry concluded that the “overwhelming majority of convicted defendants are guilty.”
“Most never dispute their guilt and few ever present substantial post-conviction evidence of innocence,” the registry found. “When that does happen, however, it should be taken seriously. …We cannot prevent all false convictions, but we must not compound these tragedies by stubbornness or arrogance or, worst of all, indifference.”
Andrew Cohen, legal analyst for CBS Radio News and 60 Minutes and contributing editor at The Atlantic, writes a compelling article dissecting the book-length investigation of the arrest, conviction and execution of Carlos DeLuna for a murder in 1983.
Titled “Yes, American, We Have Executed an Innocent Man,” Cohen notes that Steve Mills and I conducted our own investigation of the DeLuna case and wrote a three-part series published in 2006.
In particular, Cohen delivers a scathing criticism of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who ridiculed the proposition that an innocent defendant had been executed in America in an opinion on June 26, 2006, saying in part:
“If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops by the abolition lobby.”
The following day, the final installment of our series on the wrongful conviction of DeLuna was published in the Chicago Tribune.
Read Cohen’s Atlantic piece in its entirety HERE.
In 2005, James Liebman, a professor at Columbia Law School in New York, approached me and fellow Chicago Tribune reporter Steve Mills and asked if we would be interested in investigating a possible wrongful execution in Texas – -the case of Carlos DeLuna. Several months earlier, Steve and I had investigated and written an article that exposed how Cameron Todd Willingham had been executed in Texas for an arson fire that killed his three children.
Our investigation provided compelling evidence that the fire was not an arson and that Willingham was innocent. Liebman explained that his students and a private investigator had done preliminary work on the DeLuna case and had turned up some evidence that DeLuna was innocent. Liebman offered to turn over the results of their work and the documents they had collected. There were no strings.
Liebman put it simply: Take the case wherever you feel it needs to go. Pull no punches. Give it your best shot.
The result was a three part series, published in 2006, which not only provided strong evidence that DeLuna was innocent, but also identified the true killer.
Six years later, Liebman and company have published Los Tocayos Carlos — a book-length account of the DeLuna case, published in the Columbia Human Rights Review — complete with a robust, dynamic website crammed with video interviews, photographs, transcripts, and exhibits documenting the wrongful execution.
From “Death, Despair and Destruction: A Few Long Reads” by Sam Wooley/The Chicago Reader, May 16, 2012
On Monday night, the Columbia University Human Rights Review released its spring issue, which is dedicated entirely to a single legal case: the 1989 execution of Carlos DeLuna, which the Review claims was in error, for murdering a woman during a robbery in Corpus Christi in 1983. The entire report is online at thewrongcarlos.net. On the Atlantic website, Andrew Cohen provides a passionate distillation, beginning and ending with a mention of Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, who’s claimed that the history of capital punishment has been error-free. “If [a wrongful execution] had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it,” Scalia wrote in 2006. “[T]he innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops by the abolition lobby.”
No physical evidence and only one “sketchy” eyewitness tied DeLuna to the crime, Cohen notes, and it was “common knowledge” around Corpus Christi that another man, Carlos Hernandez, had committed the crime—it’s said that he “couldn’t stop bragging” about it. The Chicago Tribune has already investigated the DeLuna case. In 2006 reporters Steve Mills and Maurice Possley wrote that they “identified five people who say Hernandez told them that he stabbed Lopez and that De Luna, whom he called his ‘stupid tocayo,’ or namesake, went to Death Row in his place.”
From Bloomberg/BusinessWeek, May 09, 2012
By Edvard Pettersson and Maurice Possley
Honda Motor Co. (7267) won the reversal of a $9,867 small-claims-court loss to a Californian who dropped out of a class-action lawsuit and pursued her own claim that the company overstated the fuel mileage of its Civic Hybrid.
California state Judge Dudley W. Gray II in Torrance, in Los Angeles County, said in a ruling today that Tokyo-based Honda’s fuel-economy ratings were in compliance with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requirements and that the ratings are for comparison among vehicles without taking into account factors that can affect mileage at a given moment.
“Defendant’s use of advertising slogans such as ‘sipping fuel,’ ‘amazingly little fuel’ and ‘saves plenty of money on fuel’ — the court rules that these are non-actionable sales puffery,” the judge said. “They are not specific promises of anything.”
Continue reading HERE
By Maurice Possley/The Crime Report
A coalition of innocence projects, legal experts and wrongly convicted defendants announced on Thursday that a study of prosecutorial misconduct in Arizona from 2004 through 2008 found that prosecutors committed error in 20 cases.
The coalition — which includes the Innocence Project of New York, along with Veritas Initiative, a policy and research arm of the Northern California Innocence Project, as well as Innocence Project New Orleans and Voices of Innocence — convened in Arizona on Thursday night in the latest stop in a national tour aimed at exposing prosecutorial misconduct and initiating reform.
In 15 of the cases, the finding of error was deemed “harmless” and the convictions were upheld. In five of the cases, the errors were ruled to be “harmful” and the convictions were reversed.
During that same time period, three prosecutors were publicly disciplined by the State Bar of Arizona, but none of the prosecutors in the 20 cases found by Veritas were subject to any discipline.
One of those three prosecutors disciplined was Kenneth Peasley — once considered the most feared prosecutor in Pima County, Ariz., where he won conviction after conviction, some of which sent defendants to death row.
Peasley was disbarred in 2004 for knowingly allowing a detective to testify falsely in two capital murder trials — improper behavior that led to the release of a man from death row.
Eight years later, Peasley’s legacy as an unethical prosecutor continues to grow, even though he died in 2011.
Continue reading on Salon.com HERE
SOJOURNERS/GOD’S POLITICS BLOG, Oct. 9, 2011
Deadlines and the Death Penalty: The Case of Corey R. Maples
by Maurice Possley 10-09-2011 10:13 am
The ink was barely dry on the death certificate for Troy Davis, executed by the state of Georgia on Sept. 21, when the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in an Alabama death penalty case that, if not for its serious nature, feels like a trip through Alice’s looking glass.
The question before the court is this: Should the state of Alabama execute a man who lost an opportunity to file an appeal in his case because a deadline was missed — because of a foul up in a law firm’s mail room?
At issue is the case of Corey R. Maples, convicted of murdering two men in 1995 and sentenced to death, even though his trial lawyers have since conceded they were “stumbling around in the dark.” Unlike the Davis case, where substantial doubt about his guilt had been raised before he was executed, there doesn’t appear to be much question that Mr. Maples committed a double murder. The issue is whether he received ineffective assistance of counsel in the penalty phase of the case and whether, had he had competent counsel, he would have been sentenced to a prison term instead of death.
On appeal, Mr. Maples was represented by the New York law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell. Alabama is the only state that does not provide lawyers on appeal in death cases. Two associates in the firm handled Mr. Maples’ post-conviction appeal and when it was denied, a copy of the ruling was sent to the New York office of the law firm. By then, both associates had left the firm, so the mail room stamped the denial of the appeal “return to sender” and “left firm.”
The local Alabama lawyer who was on the case only, he has said, so that the New York lawyers could be permitted to practice in Alabana, received a copy, but did nothing because he assumed that Sullivan & Cromwell was on top of the situtation.
By the time someone figured out what happened, the deadline to appeal the denial of his post-conviction appeal had passed. So far, the state of Alabama has successfully argued that despite the mail room debacle, Maples should have been aware — through his local counsel — that the clock was ticking and that he just blew it.
Continue reading Maury’s post HERE.
WGN-RADIO in Chicago, “The Milt Rosenberg Show,” Oct. 5, 2011
Listen to Maury’s recent appearance with Milt to discuss Hitler in the Crosshairs HERE.
SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS, Oct. 5, 2011
Maurice Possley and Kathleen ‘Cookie’ Ridolfi: Attorneys and judges need to report misconduct cases to the California Bar Association
Two decades ago, in response to a highly critical series of media reports that revealed how the State Bar of California had virtually abdicated its role in the investigation and discipline of attorneys, the Legislature passed two laws requiring courts and lawyers to report misconduct to the Bar.
The laws added to the California Business and Professions Code require courts to report misconduct by attorneys and require attorneys to self-report misconduct findings to the Bar. But research shows these mandates are largely ignored by the courts and attorneys and are unenforced by the Bar, even though lack of compliance is in itself grounds for discipline.
With that in mind, the Bar should take a serious look at two decisions last week, one by a state Appellate Court involving a prosecution in Santa Clara County and the other by a Superior Court judge in Los Angeles County.
Continue reading the OpEd HERE.