MoPo in the Media: Criminal (In)Justice Podcast, Poynter

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Photo of the interir of Alcatraz by Geof Wilson via Creative Commons/Flickr

Maurice recently was a guest on David A. Harris’ Criminal (In)Justice podcast, where he discussed his journalistic work around exonerations of the wrongfully convicted.

Harris says,

With hundreds of exonerations of the wrongfully convicted, it’s easy to think that the law and lawyers making use of DNA have made all the difference. But investigative journalists have made huge contributions: exposing shoddy forensics, showing the public how eyewitness testimony goes wrong and how false confessions get made, and confronting police wrongdoing and lack of accountability. Without the untiring efforts of reporters, much of the injustice in the criminal system would stay hidden.

Listen to the Episode 11 online HERE or via to the June 221, 2016 Episode via iTunes HERE.


Maurice received a nice shout out from Rick MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s Magazine, in a recent column by James Warren at the Poynter Institute.

In response to Warren’s question about the current state of criminal justice journalism, MacArthur said:

“It’s terrible now. It used to be very good when there were more newspapers. Two stars were Maury Possley (then at the Chicago Tribune, now the National Registry of Exonerations in California) and Jim Dwyer when he was at Newsday (now at The New York Times). But there were other people, too. All over the country, local papers were doing big investigative pieces on wrongful convictions and judicial malpractice. Now most of the reporters have been wiped out. So I would say the state of enterprise reporting on travesties of justice — the classic pieces — is very poor. And there’s no replacement.”

Read Warren’s column in its entirety HERE.

 

 

 

 

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For 50 Years, You’ve Had “The Right to Remain Silent”

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With my colleague Sam Gross, director of the National Registry of Exonerations, I recently published a piece on the 50th anniversary of the Miranda warnings and why so many suspects confess to crimes they haven’t committed, at The Marshall Project.

Here’s an excerpt:

“You have the right to remain silent.”

If you’ve ever watched any of the tens of thousands of hours of television devoted to crime dramas, you know the first warning given to suspects who are arrested and questioned. And the second: “Anything you say can and will be used against you.” The Miranda warnings—named for Miranda v. Arizona, the 1966 Supreme Court decision that required them—celebrate their 50th anniversary on June 13. In that period, they have become so ubiquitous that it’s easy to forget their origin and purpose.

Miranda was the culmination of 30 years of Supreme Court cases that were designed to protect criminal suspects from abuse in police interrogations. The earliest of these decisions prohibited violence and torture. The first concern was to prevent confessions that are “unreliable”—that is, false.

In 1966, false confessions seemed like a rare problem. Fifty years later, we have seen hundreds of exonerations of innocent defendants who confessed to terrible crimes after they received Miranda warnings.

It’s a good time to take stock.

Do innocent people really confess without torture?Why would an innocent person ever confess to a murder or some other terrible violent crime?

Torture would explain it. That was the issue in Brown v. Mississippi in 1936, the first case in which the Supreme Court excluded a confession from a state court prosecution. Three suspects had been tortured for days. Asked how severely one defendant was whipped, the deputy in charge testified: “Not too much for a Negro; not as much as I would have done if it were left to me.”

Between 1936 and 1966 the use of torture to extract confessions declined greatly, a major accomplishment by American courts and criminal justice reformers. When Miranda was written, a shift was underway to more “modern” methods of interrogation: isolation, deception, manipulation and exhaustion rather than beating. Without torture or threats of death or violence, it seems implausible that an innocent suspect would confess to a serious crime. That is precisely why confessions are such powerful evidence of guilt. But we know it happens, time and again.

The National Registry of Exonerations has collected data on 1,810 exonerations in the United States since 1989 (as of June 7, 2016). They include 227 cases of innocent men and women who confessed, 13 percent of the total, all after receiving Miranda warnings (at least according to the police). Nearly three quarters of those false confessions were homicide cases.

But these exonerations deeply understate the extent of the problem.

Read the article in its entirety HERE.

From the Washington Post and the Marshall Project: More Doubts from Death Row (March 2015)

Johnny Webb in Corsicana, Texas. Webb, who testified that Cameron Todd Willingham made a jailhouse confession to him that he murdered his three children, has come forward to say he gave false testimony. Michel du Cille/The Washington Post

Johnny Webb in Corsicana, Texas. Webb, who testified that Cameron Todd Willingham made a jailhouse confession to him that he murdered his three children, has come forward to say he gave false testimony. Michel du Cille/The Washington Post

 

 

From the Washington Post, Tuesday March 10, 2015:

CORSICANA, Tex. — More than a decade after Cameron Todd Willingham was executed for the arson murder of his three young daughters, new evidence has emerged that indicates that a key prosecution witness testified in return for a secret promise to have his own criminal sentence reduced.

In a previously undisclosed letter that the witness, Johnny E. Webb, wrote from prison in 1996, he urged the lead prosecutor in Willingham’s case to make good on what Webb described as an earlier promise to downgrade his conviction. Webb also hinted that he might make his complaint public.

Within days, the prosecutor, John H. Jackson, sought out the Navarro County judge who had handled Willingham’s case and came away with a court order that altered the record of Webb’s robbery conviction to make him immediately eligible for parole. Webb would later recant his testimony that Willingham confessed to setting his house on fire with the toddlers inside.

Jackson’s handling of the case is now under investigation by the State Bar of Texas, following a formal complaint of prosecutorial misconduct last summer. That grievance asked that Jackson be sanctioned or even prosecuted for falsifying official records, withholding evidence and obstructing justice.

On Monday, an attorney for Jackson said he expected the Texas bar to notify his client soon that it will pursue formal charges of misconduct. The attorney, Joseph E. Byrne, said Jackson would seek to have any such charges heard by a jury, as the bar rules allow.

CONTINUE READING at WashingtonPost.com HERE

READ “The Prosecutor and the Snitch” at The Marshall Project HERE.

Victims of the Prosecution

The following piece ran today on Salon.com (and earlier this week on The Crime Report)

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 Crime ReportThe 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

San Jose Mercury News OpEd, March 3, 2011

The following OpEd, co-written by MoPo and Kathleen “Cookie” Ridolfi of the Northern California Innocence Project ran in the March 3, 2011 edition of the San Jose Mercury News. You can read it on the Mercury News site (with accompanying comments) by clicking this link: READ.

Opinion: Defendants exonerated, but off-base prosecutors pay no price

By Maurice Possley and Kathleen Ridolfi

Special to the Mercury News

Posted: 03/03/2011 08:00:00 PM PST

In a remarkable ruling, a California federal appeals court has set aside the conviction, prison sentence and $200,000 fine assessed against Prabhat Goyal, the former chief financial officer of a Silicon Valley software firm who had been found guilty by a jury of charges he misstated revenue and lied to auditors.

The court didn’t just reverse the case for a new trial, it threw it out completely. The author of the ruling, 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Richard Clifton, wrote in the December decision, “Even viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, no reasonable juror could have found Goyal guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of any of the charges against him.”

In other words, there was no evidence of a crime.

The case, another in a string of imploded federal prosecutions, makes Goyal the latest victim of overzealous prosecutors.

His prosecution so angered another member of the three-judge panel, Judge Alex Kozinski, that he wrote a blistering concurring opinion that should be required reading for every prosecutor in America.

“This is just one of a string of recent cases in which courts have found that federal prosecutors overreached by trying to stretch criminal law beyond its proper bounds,” Kozinski said, pointing to cases brought against former accounting giant Arthur Anderson and the prosecution of former Brocade executive Gregory Reyes, among others.

In the recent spate of white-collar cases in which courts declared misconduct was committed, not one prosecutor has yet been held to answer for it. The only cost has been to remove the case from the victory column — a consequence that too many prosecutors find well worth the risk.Goyal was the former chief financial officer of Network Associates, a Santa Clara-based software manufacturing firm that later became known as McAfee. In 2004, he was accused of securities fraud and making false statements. Convicted in 2007, Goyal was sentenced to a year and a day in prison and fined $200,000.

“(C)riminal law should clearly separate conduct that is criminal from conduct that is legal,” Kozinski wrote. “That is not only because of the dire consequences of a conviction — including disenfranchisement, incarceration and even deportation — but also because criminal law represents the community’s sense of the type of behavior that merits the moral condemnation of society.

“When prosecutors have to stretch law or the evidence to secure a conviction, as they did here, it can hardly be said that such moral judgment is warranted,” Kozinski wrote.

In October 2010, the Northern California Innocence Project published, “Preventable Error: A Report on Prosecutorial Misconduct in California 1997-2009,” which identified more than 700 cases where courts had found misconduct. Of those, only seven prosecutors were disciplined.

Prosecutorial misconduct fundamentally perverts justice and costs taxpayers millions of dollars. It undermines our trust in the justice system and subverts the notion that we are a fair society.

Yet, until recently, in the vast majority of cases, courts and agencies charged with overseeing attorney conduct have failed to acknowledge it, let alone do anything to deter it.

More than six years after he was charged, Goyal has been exonerated, but at a steep cost to him, to the public, and to the criminal justice system.

“That is not the way criminal law is supposed to work,” the judge said.

KATHLEEN RIDOLFI is executive director of the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University School of Law. MAURICE POSSLEY, a Pulitzer Prize winning former investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune, is an investigator and researcher with the project. They wrote this article for this newspaper.

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