Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Eddie Lee Howard: Mississippi: Junk bite mark comparison evidence; Flawed 'expert' arson testimony; (A double whammy. HL); Innocence Project focuses on, "the role of unreliable forensic evidence in the case."... “The Mississippi Supreme Court has taken a powerful stance in rejecting junk science as the basis on which to put a man to death,” said M. Chris Fabricant, one of Mr. Howard’s Innocence Project attorneys. “We are thankful that the Court has identified this breakdown in Mr. Howard’s case, ruling that debunked science has no place in our justice system.”


QUOTE OF THE DAY: "Mr. Howard was sentenced to death based on unfounded forensics with no physical evidence or witnesses to the crime,” said Vanessa Potkin, another of Mr. Howard’s Innocence Project attorneys. “Like Mr. Howard, 21 other men and women on death row across the country have had their innocence proven by DNA, including Kennedy Brewer. Mr. Brewer, who is also a Black man, spent 15 years on Mississippi’s death row based on false bite mark evidence. We know there are more innocent people currently on death row pleading for post-conviction relief. The death penalty is the most extreme and irreversible form of punishment. Mr. Howard’s case is a prime example of why we cannot afford to use it when human error is still so prevalent in the criminal justice system.”


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PASSAGE OF THE DAY: "Mr. Howard’s case is a stark example of how unreliable forensic evidence can lead to wrongful conviction. To date, Mr. Howard is one of four Mississippians whose murder conviction has been overturned while serving time on death row as a result of the same discredited and unscientific forensic methods. These cases are, by no means, isolated. Mr. Howard’s case marks the 28th exoneration in the United States based on bite mark comparison.  The Innocence Project, moreover, is currently working on two additional post-conviction death penalty convictions, both of which rely heavily on the use of bite mark evidence and are therefore inherently unreliable."


POST: "Eddie Lee Howard is exonerated after 26 years on death row," published by the Innocence Project on January 11, 2021.


SUB-HEADING: "Post-conviction DNA tests and alibi witnesses clear Mr. Howard."


GIST: Eddie Lee Howard was exonerated on Friday, January 8, 2021, marking the end of his 26-year fight for innocence. Mr. Howard, a Black man, was sentenced to death in 1994 after being wrongfully convicted of murdering an elderly white woman in Columbus, Mississippi, based almost entirely on now discredited bite mark evidence. New forensic opinion regarding bite marks and powerful alibi witnesses, along with DNA testing of crime scene evidence, including blood and DNA from the murder weapon, excluded Mr. Howard, proving his innocence. He was released from Mississippi’s death row in early December 2020 ahead of today’s ruling.


In a landmark decision on August 31, the Mississippi Supreme Court vacated Mr. Howard’s conviction and death sentence, recognizing that his case rested on the debunked technique of bite mark comparison. As the Court noted, an “individual perpetrator cannot be reliably identified through bite mark comparison,” yet bite mark comparison was “the State’s most important evidence at Howard’s trial.” From the time he took office, District Attorney Scott Colom paid close attention to Mr. Howard’s case and the issues raised around forensic science and the fairness of the system. He then studied the recent Supreme Court decision and thoroughly reviewed and reinvestigated the evidence. His decision not to retry this case is the correct one and finally ends Mr. Howard’s wrongful conviction nightmare.


“I want to say many thanks to the many people who are responsible for helping to make my dream of freedom a reality,” said Mr. Howard. “I thank you with all my heart, because without your hard work on my behalf, I would still be confined in that terrible place called the Mississippi Department of Corrections, on death row, waiting to be executed.”


The Role of Unreliable Forensic Evidence:


“The Mississippi Supreme Court has taken a powerful stance in rejecting junk science as the basis on which to put a man to death,” said M. Chris Fabricant, one of Mr. Howard’s Innocence Project attorneys. “We are thankful that the Court has identified this breakdown in Mr. Howard’s case, ruling that debunked science has no place in our justice system.”


Mr. Howard’s case is a stark example of how unreliable forensic evidence can lead to wrongful conviction. To date, Mr. Howard is one of four Mississippians whose murder conviction has been overturned while serving time on death row as a result of the same discredited and unscientific forensic methods. These cases are, by no means, isolated. Mr. Howard’s case marks the 28th exoneration in the United States based on bite mark comparison.  The Innocence Project, moreover, is currently working on two additional post-conviction death penalty convictions, both of which rely heavily on the use of bite mark evidence and are therefore inherently unreliable.


“Mr. Howard was sentenced to death based on unfounded forensics with no physical evidence or witnesses to the crime,” said Vanessa Potkin, another of Mr. Howard’s Innocence Project attorneys. “Like Mr. Howard, 21 other men and women on death row across the country have had their innocence proven by DNA, including Kennedy Brewer. Mr. Brewer, who is also a Black man, spent 15 years on Mississippi’s death row based on false bite mark evidence. We know there are more innocent people currently on death row pleading for post-conviction relief. The death penalty is the most extreme and irreversible form of punishment. Mr. Howard’s case is a prime example of why we cannot afford to use it when human error is still so prevalent in the criminal justice system.”


Other Systemic Flaws:


Mr. Howard’s wrongful conviction involves a host of other troublingly common factors — including a failed police investigation and racial bias.


From the beginning of the case, the Lowndes County police lacked any credible suspects and arrested Mr. Howard without any documented, reasonable suspicion. Mr. Howard had several alibi witnesses at the time of the crime, but at trial, the State used “expert” arson testimony to narrow the timeframe in which the murder could have taken place, undermining Mr. Howard’s alibi evidence. A representative from the Columbus Fire Department testified that the two fires set in the victim’s house had “smoldered” for four to six hours before the fire department responded. However, based on recent analysis of the available records and trial testimony, John Lentini, one of the country’s top arson investigators, concluded that this testimony — specifically the burn time — had “no basis in known data, research or science.” He further explained, “There is no way that any competent fire expert would opine that the fires burned for longer than an hour.” The victim was likely killed within an hour of the fire’s discovery, when Mr. Howard was at his sister’s house with multiple witnesses, each of whom gave consistent versions of Mr. Howard’s whereabouts in the hours before and after the crime.


Of the 375 DNA exonerations recorded in the United States since 1989, 225 are Black. Decades of robust data analysis establish that the race of a victim profoundly influences the likelihood of the accused being charged with capital murder and receiving the death penalty. For example, according to the 2017 National Registry of Exonerations report, Race and Wrongful Conviction in the United States, Black defendants are more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder when the victim(s) are white. Only about 15 percent of murders committed by Black individuals have white victims, but 31 percent of wrongfully convicted Black murder exonerees were convicted of killing white people.  As the Death Penalty Information Center reported last year, in Enduring Injustice: The Persistence of Racial Discrimination in the U.S. Death Penalty, national homicide and execution data between 1976 and 2014 indicate that defendants convicted of killing white people are over four times more likely to be executed than those convicted of killing Blacks. The fact that Mr. Howard was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a white woman highlights the deep racial disparities in the administration of justice and use of the death penalty in the United States.


Justice After 26 Years: 


Mr. Howard walks free today, 26 years after he was first wrongly incarcerated on death row at Parchman Farm — a former slave plantation turned prison, and one of the most dangerous and brutal facilities in the United States.


“This is such a bitter sweet victory,” said Tucker Carrington of the Mississippi Innocence Project. “We’re thrilled that Mr. Howard will finally have his freedom and some semblance of justice but he has lost nearly three decades of his life facing execution because the system failed. His case reminds us that there is still much work to be done to support Mr. Howard and others like him who have lost precious years of their lives to wrongful convictions.”


Mr. Howard is represented by Tucker Carrington of the Mississippi Innocence Project, and M. Chris Fabricant, Vanessa Potkin, Peter Neufeld and Dana Delger, all of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University."


The entire post can be read at:

https://innocenceproject.org/eddie-lee-howard-is-exonerated-after-26-years-on-mississippi-death-row/

PUBLISHER'S NOTE: I am monitoring this case/issue. Keep your eye on the Charles Smith Blog for reports on developments. The Toronto Star, my previous employer for more than twenty incredible years, has put considerable effort into exposing the harm caused by Dr. Charles Smith and his protectors - and into pushing for reform of Ontario's forensic pediatric pathology system. The Star has a "topic"  section which focuses on recent stories related to Dr. Charles Smith. It can be found at: http://www.thestar.com/topic/charlessmith. Information on "The Charles Smith Blog Award"- and its nomination process - can be found at: http://smithforensic.blogspot.com/2011/05/charles-smith-blog-award-nominations.html Please send any comments or information on other cases and issues of interest to the readers of this blog to: hlevy15@gmail.com.  Harold Levy: Publisher: The Charles Smith Blog;
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FINAL WORD:  (Applicable to all of our wrongful conviction cases):  "Whenever there is a wrongful conviction, it exposes errors in our criminal legal system, and we hope that this case — and lessons from it — can prevent future injustices."
Lawyer Radha Natarajan:
Executive Director: New England Innocence Project;
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FINAL, FINAL WORD (FOR NOW!): "Since its inception, the Innocence Project has pushed the criminal legal system to confront and correct the laws and policies that cause and contribute to wrongful convictions.   They never shied away from the hard cases — the ones involving eyewitness identifications, confessions, and bite marks. Instead, in the course of presenting scientific evidence of innocence, they’ve exposed the unreliability of evidence that was, for centuries, deemed untouchable." So true!
Christina Swarns: Executive Director: The Innocence Project;
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Monday, January 18, 2021

Arson 'Science': (Part Five) Arson Investigation: JoAnn Parks: David Lee Gavitt; Cameron Todd Willingham: The old approach: The new approach: False fire forensics' and wrongful convictions. The California Innocence Project's concise guide to 'fire investigations.'...Each year, more arson cases are being re-examined by innocence projects and the application of the new scientific research has lead to more exonerations."


NOTA BENE: Check out my latest post in the 'Selfless Warriors Blog,' published earlier today at the link below: Norimichi Kumamoto: Selfless Warrior/Iwao Hakamada: Japan: Update: Major (Welcome)  Development): Former Judge Kumamoto, one of the three judges  on the panel  which  sentenced celebrated  boxer Iwao Hakamada to death in 1968 (he voted 'not guilty') devoted the rest of his life to saving Hakamada, who he believed was innocent. It now appears that Judge  Kumamoto's heroic efforts over the decades are paying off. CNN  (Reporter Emiko Jozuka) reports that  the Japanese Supreme Court has granted  a retrial to Hakamada who is now 84-years-old. Hakamada, known to be the world's longest death-row inmate, has been out of custody - having been   released from death row  and allowed to return to his home pending the recent  Supreme Court Decision. (That's a first in my books!  HL):

selflesswarriors.blogspot.com

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Back to The Charles Smith Blog:

GUIDE: The concise California Innocence Project's guide to fire investigation - setting out, "the old approach', the 'new approach' and 'false fire forensics and wrongful convictions.'

GIST: "Fire investigation is the analysis of fire-related incidents through the use of fire dynamics. When a disastrous fire occurs, investigators must determine where and how the fire started, and whether it was accidental or intentional. If an intentional fire was set, the investigator’s findings could lead to criminal charges. If the fire resulted in deaths, then a person could be charged with murder.

The Old Approach:

Prior to 1992, there was not a single uniform guide on how to investigate a fire, and there were no minimum educational requirements for a fire investigator to be deemed competent. Early fire investigations relied on an apprentice-based teaching passed down through generations of investigators experienced in fire analysis. This knowledge was largely based on observation and intuition, not actual science. Many indicators of an intentional fire (e.g., burn patterns, presence of an accelerant, window cracking, etc.) were never questioned, Through accidental findings and scientific research, it became apparent these techniques led to the incorrect conclusions, and many people were wrongfully convicted of arson when a crime did not, in fact, occur.

The New Approach:

In 1992, the first publication of the National Fire Protection Association, NFPA 921 (“Guide for Fire and Explosive Investigations”) introduced the use of the scientific method to fire investigations. NFPA 921 was met with great resistance, but by the year of 2000, this document became widely accepted as providing the standards for properly investigating a fire. Through scientific research and experiments, fire scientists are starting to better understand a fire’s behavior in various conditions, including how to read patterns in a post-flashover, ventilation-limited fires. However, error rates are still widely unknown. For these reasons, and in order to avoid wrongful claims of arson, fire investigators are now tasked with using these science-based findings to investigate a fire’s origin and cause. Any claims that there was an accelerant present are now required to be tested in a laboratory before they can be used in the investigator’s analysis. The new research and findings have shattered dozens of arson myths as the science continues to improve. Similarly, NFPA 1033 provides the minimum requirements fire investigator needs to know to be a competent fire investigator.

False Fire Forensics and Wrongful Convictions:

Innocence projects have reviewed numerous arson convictions and found many of these convictions to be based on the unscientific methods of fire investigators, whose conclusions were based on arson “indicators.” These indicators are now disputed after laboratory experiments.

A 2012 exoneration from Michigan illustrates how new scientific research can prove a person’s innocence. David Lee Gavitt was convicted of killing his wife and children in a fire that engulfed his house. Gavitt’s conviction was overturned based on a new analysis of the 1985 fire. The new experts concluded that a flashover (a phenomenon where a fire burns to eventually explode and engulf an entire room) occurred. Once flashover occurs, interpreting the fire patterns becomes difficult and often leads to incorrect conclusions about the fire’s origin and cause. Some firefighter departments often stage a flashover simulator as a way of trying to define what the origin and cause of a fire could be. Also found n Gavitt’s case was the improper assertion that an accelerant, gasoline, was found in the house John Lentini, one of the nation’s leading fire scientists, said in an affidavit that the experts “bundled [arson] myths together” and “in light of modern fire science, there is simply not one shred of credible evidence that the fire. . . was intentionally set.”

In Texas, the application of the new science was not as well-received. In 1991, a fire erupted in Cameron Todd Willingham’s house which took the lives of his three daughters. Willingham consistently declared his innocence, however, fire investigators and prosecutors insisted Willingham was guilty based on outdated myths regarding the origin and cause of the fire. A jury ultimately convicted Willingham of murder based on the testimony of an expert fire investigator and a questionable jailhouse informant. Willingham was sentenced to death. In 2004, after fire analysis techniques were developed with scientific investigation, nationally recognized expert Gerald Hurst reanalyzed Willingham’s case and determined the prior expert forensic fire testimony was incorrect. State officials did not act on the new reports and Willingham was executed in 2004. “Trial By Fire” will be released in May 2019 and will feature Willingham’s story.

California Innocence Project client Joann Parks is another victim of false fire analysis. As the sole survivor of a 1989 house fire that killed her three children, investigators ultimately, and wrongfully, accused her of starting the fire. We know now, through new scientific research, that there are many innocent explanations for how the fire began, and that Joann was convicted for a crime she did not commit.

Each year, more arson cases are being re-examined by innocence projects and the application of the new scientific research has lead to more exonerations."

The entire 'guide' can be read at:

californiainnocenceproject.org/issues-we-face/fire-investigation/

PUBLISHER'S NOTE: I am monitoring this case/issue. Keep your eye on the Charles Smith Blog for reports on developments. The Toronto Star, my previous employer for more than twenty incredible years, has put considerable effort into exposing the harm caused by Dr. Charles Smith and his protectors - and into pushing for reform of Ontario's forensic pediatric pathology system. The Star has a "topic"  section which focuses on recent stories related to Dr. Charles Smith. It can be found at: http://www.thestar.com/topic/charlessmith. Information on "The Charles Smith Blog Award"- and its nomination process - can be found at: http://smithforensic.blogspot.com/2011/05/charles-smith-blog-award-nominations.html Please send any comments or information on other cases and issues of interest to the readers of this blog to: hlevy15@gmail.com.  Harold Levy: Publisher: The Charles Smith Blog;

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FINAL WORD:  (Applicable to all of our wrongful conviction cases):  "Whenever there is a wrongful conviction, it exposes errors in our criminal legal system, and we hope that this case — and lessons from it — can prevent future injustices."
Lawyer Radha Natarajan:
Executive Director: New England Innocence Project;
—————————————————————————————————
FINAL, FINAL WORD (FOR NOW!): "Since its inception, the Innocence Project has pushed the criminal legal system to confront and correct the laws and policies that cause and contribute to wrongful convictions.   They never shied away from the hard cases — the ones involving eyewitness identifications, confessions, and bite marks. Instead, in the course of presenting scientific evidence of innocence, they’ve exposed the unreliability of evidence that was, for centuries, deemed untouchable." So true!
Christina Swarns: Executive Director: The Innocence Project;
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Sunday, January 17, 2021

Bulletin: Blaine Milam: Texas: Junk bitemark 'evidence' plays a role in case - Major (Welcome) Development: Was to have been executed Thursday for 2008 murder of 13-month-old child - but stay granted by Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and case remanded to the trial court for an 'intellectual disability hearing, the Longview News-Journal (Reporter Courtney Stern) reports..."During the investigation, authorities at the time alleged that the couple killed the child with a hammer. In a 2019 appeal, Milam and his attorney disputed the bite mark testimony. That evidence had proved key in his trial as the prosecution attributed several bite marks to Milam."


STORY: "Man on death row  for 2008 murder of child in Rusk County granted stay of execution, by Reporter Courtney Stern, published by The Longview News-Journal on January 15, 2020. Thanks to Dr. Michael Bowers of CSIDDS - Forensics and law in focus - for bringing this story to our attention."

GIST: "A man on death row convicted in the 2008 death of his girlfriend’s child in Rusk County has been granted a second stay of execution, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals announced Friday.

Blaine Keith Milam, 31, was sentenced to death for the December 2008 killing of 13-month-old Amora Bain Carson. His execution had been scheduled for Thursday.

Milam also was granted a stay in January 2019, just one day before his execution.

His attorney filed a request for a stay of execution Jan. 11, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted the stay and remanded the case to trial court. An intellectual disability hearing has been ordered.

Milam’s girlfriend at the time and Amora’s mother, Jesseca Carson, is serving life in prison for the crime.

At 10:37 a.m. on Dec. 2, 2008, Milam called 911 from his trailer outside of Tatum, according to court documents.

“My name is Blaine Milam, and my daughter, I just found her dead,” Milam said on the 911 call.

Later, he told law enforcement that Amora was not his daughter but Jesseca’s, his fiance. Milam said he was “raising that baby,” according to court documents.

Milam and Carson initially told police that they left the child unattended in the trailer, stating that someone must have broken in and attacked her.

According to evidence presented in Carson’s trial, in addition to 24 bite marks on Amora’s body, the child had head trauma, a torn liver, genitalia trauma, several fractured bones and bruises.

Carson later admitted that “she was present when (Milam) performed an exorcism of the demons possessing the body of the child.”

She also told police that after Milam killed the girl, they drove to Henderson to pawn items to pay for another exorcism but decided to use some of the money to buy cigarettes instead.

Milam and Carson both were 18 at the time of the child’s death.

During the investigation, authorities at the time alleged that the couple killed the child with a hammer.

In a 2019 appeal, Milam and his attorney disputed the bite mark testimony. That evidence had proved key in his trial as the prosecution attributed several bite marks to Milam.

His attorneys also claimed he was not eligible for execution because he is intellectually disabled."

The entire story can be read at:

https://www.news-journal.com/news/police/man-on-death-row-for-2008-murder-of-child-in-rusk-county-granted-stay-of/article_dec181ac-5783-11eb-8fa6-47d2d01db7b9.html

PUBLISHER'S NOTE: I am monitoring this case/issue. Keep your eye on the Charles Smith Blog for reports on developments. The Toronto Star, my previous employer for more than twenty incredible years, has put considerable effort into exposing the harm caused by Dr. Charles Smith and his protectors - and into pushing for reform of Ontario's forensic pediatric pathology system. The Star has a "topic"  section which focuses on recent stories related to Dr. Charles Smith. It can be found at: http://www.thestar.com/topic/charlessmith. Information on "The Charles Smith Blog Award"- and its nomination process - can be found at: http://smithforensic.blogspot.com/2011/05/charles-smith-blog-award-nominations.html Please send any comments or information on other cases and issues of interest to the readers of this blog to: hlevy15@gmail.com.  Harold Levy: Publisher: The Charles Smith Blog;
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FINAL WORD:  (Applicable to all of our wrongful conviction cases):  "Whenever there is a wrongful conviction, it exposes errors in our criminal legal system, and we hope that this case — and lessons from it — can prevent future injustices."
Lawyer Radha Natarajan:
Executive Director: New England Innocence Project;
—————————————————————————————————
FINAL, FINAL WORD (FOR NOW!): "Since its inception, the Innocence Project has pushed the criminal legal system to confront and correct the laws and policies that cause and contribute to wrongful convictions.   They never shied away from the hard cases — the ones involving eyewitness identifications, confessions, and bite marks. Instead, in the course of presenting scientific evidence of innocence, they’ve exposed the unreliability of evidence that was, for centuries, deemed untouchable." So true!
Christina Swarns: Executive Director: The Innocence Project;
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JoAnn Parks: California: (Part Four): Arson 'Science. Excerpt from Edward Humes monumental book 'Burned: A story of murder and the crime that wasn't" - a book which has helped secure her commutation and release after decades in prison - and hopefully will lead to her exoneration. (Which cannot come soon enough. HL)...This excerpt provides valuable insight into the way in which the California Innocence Project chooses the cases it is going to pursue. HL)


BACKGROUND: "JoAnn Parks - arrested and convicted in the tragic accidental fire that resulted in the death of her children - has finally been  released from prison after 29 years of wrongful incarceration.  As the California Innocence Project has informed us: "At the time, the government alleged Parks started the fire. We now know the fire likely started from an appliance in the poorly wired garage the family lived in. The California Innocence Project (CIP) has advocated for Parks’ release for well over a decade. In 2013, three lawyers from CIP walked 712 miles to deliver a clemency petition to then-Governor Jerry Brown. Governor Brown failed to act on the petition. Last year, Governor Gavin Newsom granted Parks’ clemency petition and commuted her Life Without Parole sentence to make her instantly eligible for parole.“ I am thrilled JoAnn Parks is finally free,” said Justin Brooks, Director of the California Innocence Project and a Professor of Law at California Western School of Law. “Nothing could be worse than losing your children and then being wrongfully convicted of their murder. As we learn more about the science of fires, hopefully these kinds of wrongful convictions will no longer occur.”

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PASSAGE OF THE DAY: "The letter (to the California Innocence Project was fairly typical in its claim of an innocent person betrayed by an official rush to judgment. But it was highly unusual in another respect: It came not from a convict or a family member, but from a forensics expert who had testified for the defense in a murder case. He had been devastated when a guilty verdict was returned, and he had devoted his own time and money to try to help. His analysis of the case and the proof of innocence he had offered at trial should have been enough to win the case, he complained, but he had been undermined by what he felt certain had been poor lawyering on the defense and overzealousness by the prosecution. Instead of providing decisive testimony, he wrote, he became “nothing more than window dressing going through the motions.” This was interesting—as much for the source of the correspondence as for the information it contained. The letter writer was a twenty-five-year veteran of the Los Angeles Fire Department who had spent his career catching arsonists, not setting them free, which gave him a level of credibility that was quite rare among the stacks of letters that flood the Pit. And so it was, way back in 2001, that a letter about the People of the State of California v. Jo Ann Parks survived the initial cut at the California Innocence Project."

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EXCERPT:  'Burned: A story of murder and the crime that wasn't,' by Edward Humes, published in 2019. Dutton Books/ Penguin/Random House.

GIST: "The banging and screaming began shortly after midnight, fists rattling the front door, a woman’s voice crying and moaning for help.

Shirley and Bob Robison, ready for bed and relieved that the heat wave plaguing Los Angeles that week had abated at last, stumbled through the dark house and threw open the door.

On the welcome mat stood their young neighbor—disheveled in her nightgown and housecoat, shaking and wailing. “My babies,” Jo Ann Parks gasped. “Help them, please, please. They’re still in there!”

The Robisons needed no explanation for what “there” meant. A garish orange light had painted their white stucco house the color of glowing coals. The weedy driveway normally obscured by darkness at this hour was lit up, and the Robisons could feel the furnace-hot air pumping up its length like a chimney stack. At the back end of the driveway, the converted garage apartment blazed.

The twenty-three-year-old Parks, her husband, and their three small children had moved into this dingy rental in the cramped Los Angeles suburb of Bell less than a week before, clothes and knickknacks and photo albums still piled in half-unpacked boxes, the place a mess. Now the apartment crackled and hissed, flames flaring as bright as camera flashes in the darkness, revealing gouts of black smoke pouring up into a leaden, starless sky.

“My children!” Parks shrieked. “They’re in back!”

Bob hesitated. He was too old for this, he thought. At fifty-seven, his health wasn’t the greatest. He was bone tired, his job wearing him down day by day. But . . . three little kids. Three little kids trapped in a burning house. Somebody had to do something. Staring at the doorway Parks had left open, he could see inside to the front room of the apartment, the master bedroom, flames and smoke roiling inside. He told his wife to call 911. Then Bob Robison took a deep breath, held it, and screwed up his eyes as if he were jumping off the high dive. He walked to the door and disappeared inside.

The two women gawked at the doorway, then ran back into the front house to phone for help. Then they raced back to the driveway, waiting for the fire engines, waiting for Bob, waiting for the children to emerge. Parks started moving toward the doorway into the burning house, too, but Shirley grabbed her from behind, shouting, “No, Jo Ann, don’t!” She wrapped her arm around Park’s shoulders and would not let go, certain a distraught woman could not survive long in that house in her flimsy summer night clothes. “You can’t go in there.”

Parks seemed to be bordering on hysteria to Shirley, but the younger woman heeded the command and didn’t fight to free herself. After that, she made no more moves toward entering the house.

“Oh, God,” Parks moaned a few seconds later. She spoke so softly, Shirley had trouble hearing what she said next. But it sounded something like, “I hope Ronnie wasn’t playing with matches again.”

“What was that?” Shirley asked. Ronnie Jr. was the Parkses’ oldest child and only boy, four years old, clever, occasionally mischievous. Was Jo Ann really revealing that the fire could be Ronnie’s fault? Or was she just gibbering her fears and guesses in a moment of hysteria? Shirley couldn’t tell. Nearly three decades would go by, her husband long passed, and still she would wonder just what Jo Ann Parks had said in that moment, and what, if anything, it meant.

Shirley pulled her eyes away from the fire, which seemed to be growing more intense with each passing second. She asked, “Jo Ann? What did you say Ronnie did?”

Parks shook her head, though whether that gesture came in negation, regret at her words, or simply to clear her head, Shirley once again could not tell. Jo Ann had seemed a bit odd to Shirley, no doubt about that. But this did not seem like the time to press the point, not with the apartment aflame and three little children in jeopardy. So Shirley just hugged the younger woman again around the shoulders, stayed close, and murmured words of comfort.

“My babies,” Parks said. “Will he find them? Will they be okay?” She kept repeating variations of this. It sounded almost like a chant.

Shirley didn’t know what to say. The apartment, with its 528 square feet of living space, had become an inferno. The heat was growing painful just standing in the driveway. She could not see her husband through the open door and feared he might not be able to save himself, much less three kids. And where were the police? Where were the fire trucks? Had it been only seconds since she called 911? It seemed like many minutes to her. It seemed like forever.

“Yes,” Shirley finally said. “Yes. Help is on the way. They’re going to be all right.” But she didn’t really believe it, not for a second.

PRESENT  DAY

There is a room on the ground floor of the California Western School of Law in downtown San Diego sometimes known as “the Pit.” The size of the average apartment living room, the Pit can feel cramped, hot, crowded, and loud. The walls are lined with computer stations and desks covered with stacks of legal papers and correspondence, everything in a constant state of churn. On the floor in the room’s center sit six laundry-basket-sized US Postal Service mail cartons spilling over with envelopes of every shape and thickness. The Pit more closely resembles a direct-mail boiler room than what it actually is: a critical part of a most unusual law office.

Somewhere in those boxes of mail, buried inside layers of legalese or handwritten rants, there is the story of an innocent woman or man languishing in prison, a cold closed case waiting to be teased into the light and reopened. The Pit is one of the few places in the country where this has an actual chance of happening. It is the gateway to representation by the California Innocence Project, part of nationwide web of similarly minded nonprofit operations, neither the largest nor the smallest, dedicated to freeing people from unjust imprisonment. And as it prepared to take on Jo Ann Parks’s case, the California Innocence Project had been on a roll, having freed twenty-eight men and women from wrongful convictions for murder, rape, and other serious cases across the past decade.

Project interns and volunteers find many of those cases by digging through the six postal boxes, which hold the weekly mail from defense lawyers, mothers, fathers, spouses, friends, and convicts begging for a champion to prove someone’s innocence. As fast as they can be emptied, a new batch arrives to fill the mailboxes anew.

A cursory review by the volunteers in the Pit weeds out the cases that have no chance of success, which means most of this sad, mad influx—two to three thousand a year—never get past the boiler room stage. These are the letters that reveal cases with exhausted appeals, or convictions supported by overwhelming evidence of guilt, or that are merely angry diatribes about the real, perceived, and fanciful corruption within the legal system. Many letter writers fume about some legitimate but minute contradiction in the evidence against them in an otherwise solid prosecution, not understanding that the flaw or lie or inconsistency they have spotted has to be so huge that, if corrected, likely would change a jury’s decision from guilty to not guilty. This is a hurdle only a very few can clear. Other convict correspondents will actually admit they are guilty but that they’d appreciate the change of scenery and relief from boredom a court hearing would provide. Desperation, loneliness, and boredom, rather than sincere pleas of innocence, motivate many of these letter writers. While such qualities may be grounds for sympathy, they do not make for successful appeals.

The hardest entries in the slush pile are the anguish-laden letters from parents attacking the evidence against their children, the facts no parent can bear to accept about son or daughter, the witnesses that surely must be lying, the DNA evidence that can’t possibly be correct. These letters often consist of painstakingly long handwritten recitations of the perfidy of the authorities and their twisting of the facts of the case, all highly colored by the blindness only love and grief can sustain. These are the most heartbreaking letters to reject. But sorrow, no matter how profound, will not open a prison cell door, either.

The mail that remains after this basic weeding of the pile moves on to progressively more detailed layers of review until the tidal wave is reduced to a slim stack of possible clients worthy of being more deeply researched.

“She trusted the legal system,” read one typical letter that survived this stage. “She had always respected authority . . . But once the local authorities began looking for a crime, all objectivity was lost—that their theories were adjusted to suit their mind-set was immaterial, as long as they ‘had their man.’”

The letter was fairly typical in its claim of an innocent person betrayed by an official rush to judgment. But it was highly unusual in another respect: It came not from a convict or a family member, but from a forensics expert who had testified for the defense in a murder case. He had been devastated when a guilty verdict was returned, and he had devoted his own time and money to try to help. His analysis of the case and the proof of innocence he had offered at trial should have been enough to win the case, he complained, but he had been undermined by what he felt certain had been poor lawyering on the defense and overzealousness by the prosecution. Instead of providing decisive testimony, he wrote, he became “nothing more than window dressing going through the motions.”

This was interesting—as much for the source of the correspondence as for the information it contained. The letter writer was a twenty-five-year veteran of the Los Angeles Fire Department who had spent his career catching arsonists, not setting them free, which gave him a level of credibility that was quite rare among the stacks of letters that flood the Pit. And so it was, way back in 2001, that a letter about the People of the State of California v. Jo Ann Parks survived the initial cut at the California Innocence Project.

At this stage, law students and interns gather background information for each remaining letter. Those that aren’t winnowed out after that level of scrutiny are then presented at a roundtable meeting with the staff attorneys—there are seven at the California Innocence Project—where the merits and flaws in each case are discussed. And out of those, a rare few, twenty to twenty-five cases a year, survive to be assigned for a full legal and investigative review. The review determines which of the remaining cases, if any, are suitable candidates for filing the innocence project’s primary legal tool, the habeas corpus petition, based on an ancient legal principle that has shielded individuals from government overreach since the days of William Penn. Each habeas petition absorbs a significant chunk of the project’s finite resources, so choosing well is critical.

These final calls can be agonizing because it’s just not enough to find evidence that a potential client is innocent. Contrary to public perception, the courts do not generally recognize even overwhelming evidence of innocence as a valid reason to open the cell door for someone after a guilty verdict has been rendered. There also must be legal proof that the accused did not get a fair trial leading up to a guilty verdict. The two ideas—Are they innocent? and Did they get a fair trial?—can overlap, but they are not one and the same. As the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia repeatedly pointed out—approvingly—the US Constitution does not forbid the execution of an innocent man so long as he received a fair trial first."

Jo Ann Parks ran this review gauntlet not once but three times.

The entire excerpt can be read at: 

http://www.edwardhumes.com/burned-excerpt

PUBLISHER'S NOTE: I am monitoring this case/issue. Keep your eye on the Charles Smith Blog for reports on developments. The Toronto Star, my previous employer for more than twenty incredible years, has put considerable effort into exposing the harm caused by Dr. Charles Smith and his protectors - and into pushing for reform of Ontario's forensic pediatric pathology system. The Star has a "topic"  section which focuses on recent stories related to Dr. Charles Smith. It can be found at: http://www.thestar.com/topic/charlessmith. Information on "The Charles Smith Blog Award"- and its nomination process - can be found at: http://smithforensic.blogspot.com/2011/05/charles-smith-blog-award-nominations.html Please send any comments or information on other cases and issues of interest to the readers of this blog to: hlevy15@gmail.com.  Harold Levy: Publisher: The Charles Smith Blog;
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FINAL WORD:  (Applicable to all of our wrongful conviction cases):  "Whenever there is a wrongful conviction, it exposes errors in our criminal legal system, and we hope that this case — and lessons from it — can prevent future injustices."
Lawyer Radha Natarajan:
Executive Director: New England Innocence Project;
—————————————————————————————————
FINAL, FINAL WORD (FOR NOW!): "Since its inception, the Innocence Project has pushed the criminal legal system to confront and correct the laws and policies that cause and contribute to wrongful convictions.   They never shied away from the hard cases — the ones involving eyewitness identifications, confessions, and bite marks. Instead, in the course of presenting scientific evidence of innocence, they’ve exposed the unreliability of evidence that was, for centuries, deemed untouchable." So true!
Christina Swarns: Executive Director: The Innocence Project;
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Saturday, January 16, 2021

Dustin Higgs: RIP: He becomes the 13th and final federal prisoner executed under Trump, (Thank Goodness. HL), The Guardian reports..."Dustin Higgs, 48, had been sentenced to death for the killings of three women in a Maryland wildlife refuge. His lawyers argued it was “arbitrary and inequitable” to execute him while Willis Haynes, the man who shot the women in 1996, was spared a death sentence."..."Defense attorneys had won temporary stays of execution for Higgs and another inmate, Corey Johnson, after arguing recent Covid-19 infections put them at greater risk of unnecessary suffering during lethal injections. But higher courts overruled those decisions. Johnson was killed on Thursday night."


PASSAGE OF THE DAY: "Shawn Nolan, one of Higgs’s attorneys, saw a clear political agenda in the unprecedented string of federal executions. Higgs was executed a few days before Joe Biden becomes president. A spokesman for Biden has said the Democrat is against the death penalty and will work to end its use. “In the midst of the pandemic and everything that’s going on right now in the country, it seems just insane to move forward with these executions,” Nolan said. “And particularly for Dustin, who didn’t shoot anybody. He didn’t kill anybody.”

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STORY: "Dustin Higgs becomes the 13th and final federal prisoner  executed under Trump," published by The Guardian on January 16, 2020.

SUB-HEADING: Higgs, 48, executed Friday in Indiana:

GIST: The 13th and last execution of a federal inmate under Donald Trump’s presidency has taken place in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Dustin Higgs, 48, had been sentenced to death for the killings of three women in a Maryland wildlife refuge. His lawyers argued it was “arbitrary and inequitable” to execute him while Willis Haynes, the man who shot the women in 1996, was spared a death sentence.


The federal judge who presided over Higgs’s trial said he “merits little compassion”.

“He received a fair trial and was convicted and sentenced to death by a unanimous jury for a despicable crime,” US District Judge Peter Messitte wrote on 29 December.


Trump ended a 17-year hiatus on the federal death penalty in July.


Shawn Nolan, one of Higgs’s attorneys, saw a clear political agenda in the unprecedented string of federal executions. Higgs was executed a few days before Joe Biden becomes president. A spokesman for Biden has said the Democrat is against the death penalty and will work to end its use.


“In the midst of the pandemic and everything that’s going on right now in the country, it seems just insane to move forward with these executions,” Nolan said. “And particularly for Dustin, who didn’t shoot anybody. He didn’t kill anybody.”


Defense attorneys had won temporary stays of execution for Higgs and another inmate, Corey Johnson, after arguing recent Covid-19 infections put them at greater risk of unnecessary suffering during lethal injections. But higher courts overruled those decisions. Johnson was killed on Thursday night.


Higgs’s petition for clemency says he has been a model prisoner and dedicated father to a son born after his arrest. Higgs had a traumatic childhood and lost his mother to cancer when he was 10, the petition says.


“Mr Higgs’s difficult upbringing was not meaningfully presented to the jury at trial,“ his attorneys wrote.


In October 2000 a federal jury in Maryland convicted Higgs of first-degree murder and kidnapping in the killings of Tamika Black, 19; Mishann Chinn, 23; and Tanji Jackson, 21. His death sentence was the first imposed in the modern era of the federal system in Maryland, which abolished the death penalty in 2013.


Higgs was 23 on the evening of 26 January 1996 when he, Haynes and a third man, Victor Gloria, picked up the three women in Washington DC and drove them to Higgs’s apartment in Laurel, Maryland, to drink alcohol and listen to music. Before dawn an argument between Higgs and Jackson prompted her to grab a knife before Haynes persuaded her to drop it.


Gloria said Jackson made threats as she left the apartment with the other women and appeared to write down the number of Higgs’s van. The men chased the women in the van and Haynes persuaded them to get in. Higgs drove them to a secluded spot in the Patuxent national wildlife refuge, federal land in Laurel.


“Aware at that point that something was amiss, one of the women asked if they were going to have to ‘walk from here’ and Higgs responded ’something like that’,” said an appeals court ruling upholding Higgs’s death sentence.


Higgs handed his pistol to Haynes, who shot all three women, Gloria testified.

“Gloria turned to ask Higgs what he was doing, but saw Higgs holding the steering wheel and watching the shootings from the rearview mirror,” said the 2013 ruling by a three-judge panel of the 4th US circuit court of appeals.


Chinn worked with the children’s choir at a church, Jackson worked in the office at a high school and Black was a teacher’s aide at National Presbyterian school in Washington, according to the Washington Post.


Investigators found Jackson’s day planner at the scene. It contained Higgs’s nickname, “Bones”, his telephone number, his address and the tag number for his van.


The jurors who convicted Haynes failed to reach a unanimous verdict on a death sentence. A different jury convicted Higgs and returned a death sentence. Gloria pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact and was sentenced to seven years.


Higgs argued his death sentence should be thrown out because jurors failed to consider it as a “mitigating factor” that Haynes was convicted of identical charges but sentenced to life. The appeals court concluded that rational jurors could find that Higgs had the dominant role in the murders even though Haynes fired the gun.


In a clemency petition Higgs’s lawyers said Gloria received a “substantial deal” in exchange for his cooperation.


“Moreover,” they wrote, “significant questions remain as to whether Mr Gloria received the additional undisclosed benefit of having an unrelated state murder investigation against him dropped at the urging of federal officers to protect his credibility as the star witness. A federal death verdict should not rest on such a flimsy basis.”


On the day in 2001 when the judge sentenced Higgs to death, Black’s mother, Joyce Gaston, said it brought her little solace, the Post reported. “It’s not going to ever be right in my mind,” Gaston said, “That was my daughter. I don’t know how I’m going to deal with it.""

The entire story can be read at:

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/jan/15/dustin-higgs-federal-execution-trump

PUBLISHER'S NOTE: I am monitoring this case/issue. Keep your eye on the Charles Smith Blog for reports on developments. The Toronto Star, my previous employer for more than twenty incredible years, has put considerable effort into exposing the harm caused by Dr. Charles Smith and his protectors - and into pushing for reform of Ontario's forensic pediatric pathology system. The Star has a "topic"  section which focuses on recent stories related to Dr. Charles Smith. It can be found at: http://www.thestar.com/topic/charlessmith. Information on "The Charles Smith Blog Award"- and its nomination process - can be found at: http://smithforensic.blogspot.com/2011/05/charles-smith-blog-award-nominations.html Please send any comments or information on other cases and issues of interest to the readers of this blog to: hlevy15@gmail.com.  Harold Levy: Publisher: The Charles Smith Blog;
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FINAL WORD:  (Applicable to all of our wrongful conviction cases):  "Whenever there is a wrongful conviction, it exposes errors in our criminal legal system, and we hope that this case — and lessons from it — can prevent future injustices."
Lawyer Radha Natarajan:
Executive Director: New England Innocence Project;
—————————————————————————————————
FINAL, FINAL WORD (FOR NOW!): "Since its inception, the Innocence Project has pushed the criminal legal system to confront and correct the laws and policies that cause and contribute to wrongful convictions.   They never shied away from the hard cases — the ones involving eyewitness identifications, confessions, and bite marks. Instead, in the course of presenting scientific evidence of innocence, they’ve exposed the unreliability of evidence that was, for centuries, deemed untouchable." So true!
Christina Swarns: Executive Director: The Innocence Project;
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JoAnn Parks: (Arson 'science.') Part three: The California Innocence explains in an undated, post 2019 release, how the truth of Joann Parks innocence was revealed by a panel headed by fire analyst John Lentini in 2011 - but it wasn't until now that this innocent woman was finally released. (Utterly unjust. Inexcusable. And ultimately it was the Governor and the parole Board who freed her - not the courts. What kind of criminal justice system is that? HL):


RELEASE: California Innocence Project: (post  2019): 

PASSAGE OF THE DAY: "Since 1989, fire science has changed drastically and new techniques and methods of investigations have been discovered. In 2011, an Arson Review Panel, led by John Lentini, a prominent scientific fire analyst, reviewed the evidence, reports, and expert testimony in Joann’s case. Lentini and the panel concluded the fire in Joann’s home was most likely an accident. They found the forensic evidence used during the original investigation was invalid and that the fire investigators who analyzed the case in 1989 simply did not have a proper understanding of the behavior of fire. The Panel’s report documents how the theories of police investigators – that the fire had multiple origins, one in the children’s bedroom and one in the living room – is incorrect. The fire spread from a single origin in the living room, and moved into the children’s bedroom; because the house achieved flashover, it only appeared to the untrained eye that there were two points of origin for the fire. The Panel also considered the fire patterns near the closet door where one of the children was found. Contrary to the conclusions of the police investigators, the Panel determined there was no reliable evidence that something was barricading the door. Rather, the child likely took refuge from the fire in the closet. Ultimately, the Panel concluded that, by modern standards, none of the allegedly incriminating evidence against Joann would withstand scrutiny today. The investigators and jury were misled by bad science, or no science at all."

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BACKGROUND: "JoAnn Parks - arrested and convicted in the tragic accidental fire that resulted in the death of her children - has finally been  released from prison after 29 years of wrongful incarceration.  As the California Innocence Project has informed us: "At the time, the government alleged Parks started the fire. We now know the fire likely started from an appliance in the poorly wired garage the family lived in. The California Innocence Project (CIP) has advocated for Parks’ release for well over a decade. In 2013, three lawyers from CIP walked 712 miles to deliver a clemency petition to then-Governor Jerry Brown. Governor Brown failed to act on the petition. Last year, Governor Gavin Newsom granted Parks’ clemency petition and commuted her Life Without Parole sentence to make her instantly eligible for parole.“ I am thrilled JoAnn Parks is finally free,” said Justin Brooks, Director of the California Innocence Project and a Professor of Law at California Western School of Law. “Nothing could be worse than losing your children and then being wrongfully convicted of their murder. As we learn more about the science of fires, hopefully these kinds of wrongful convictions will no longer occur.”

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PASSAGE OF THE DAY:  On 2016, the Los Angeles Superior Court granted Joann an evidentiary hearing based on her claim that false scientific evidence was presented at her trial. Throughout the hearing, CIP showed that the “science” presented at Joann’s original trial was false. While the respondent’s side admitted much of the evidence was false, they ignored the changes in the science and opined that even with the false evidence, the evidence presented at the original trial was accurate. Unfortunately, the judge viewed the hearing as a battle of experts, and CIP lost."

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GIST: On the night of April 9, 1989, JoAnn Parks put her three children to sleep and went to bed. She woke up around midnight to the sound of her children screaming. The fire that had erupted was so intense she could not get into her children’s bedroom, so she ran next door to her neighbor’s house to call the police. Tragically, no one was able to save her children. Although investigators initially believed the fire to be accidental, they ultimately concluded it was arson. Joann was arrested and put on trial, accused of starting the fire and murdering her children.

At Joann’s trial, fire investigators testified the fire was caused by human origin, rather than by an electrical source. One investigator testified he believed there had actually been two fires, one starting in the living room, and another starting in the children’s bedroom. The presence of two points of origin pointed conclusively to a case of arson; had the fire started accidentally, there would have been only one point of origin. Additionally, one of the children had been found in the closet, and investigators believed the closet door was shut and blocked by a laundry hamper. Joann was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Since 1989, fire science has changed drastically and new techniques and methods of investigations have been discovered. In 2011, an Arson Review Panel, led by John Lentini, a prominent scientific fire analyst, reviewed the evidence, reports, and expert testimony in Joann’s case. Lentini and the panel concluded the fire in Joann’s home was most likely an accident. They found the forensic evidence used during the original investigation was invalid and that the fire investigators who analyzed the case in 1989 simply did not have a proper understanding of the behavior of fire.

The Panel’s report documents how the theories of police investigators – that the fire had multiple origins, one in the children’s bedroom and one in the living room – is incorrect. The fire spread from a single origin in the living room, and moved into the children’s bedroom; because the house achieved flashover, it only appeared to the untrained eye that there were two points of origin for the fire.

The Panel also considered the fire patterns near the closet door where one of the children was found. Contrary to the conclusions of the police investigators, the Panel determined there was no reliable evidence that something was barricading the door. Rather, the child likely took refuge from the fire in the closet. Ultimately, the Panel concluded that, by modern standards, none of the allegedly incriminating evidence against Joann would withstand scrutiny today. The investigators and jury were misled by bad science, or no science at all.

In 2016, the Los Angeles Superior Court granted Joann an evidentiary hearing based on her claim that false scientific evidence was presented at her trial. Throughout the hearing, CIP showed that the “science” presented at Joann’s original trial was false. While the respondent’s side admitted much of the evidence was false, they ignored the changes in the science and opined that even with the false evidence, the evidence presented at the original trial was accurate. Unfortunately, the judge viewed the hearing as a battle of experts, and CIP lost. CIP will continue to fight for Joann, who has been wrongfully incarcerated for more than two decades despite the facts that prove her innocence.

The entire release can be read here:

joann-parks

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PUBLISHER'S NOTE: I am monitoring this case/issue. Keep your eye on the Charles Smith Blog for reports on developments. The Toronto Star, my previous employer for more than twenty incredible years, has put considerable effort into exposing the harm caused by Dr. Charles Smith and his protectors - and into pushing for reform of Ontario's forensic pediatric pathology system. The Star has a "topic"  section which focuses on recent stories related to Dr. Charles Smith. It can be found at: http://www.thestar.com/topic/charlessmith. Information on "The Charles Smith Blog Award"- and its nomination process - can be found at: http://smithforensic.blogspot.com/2011/05/charles-smith-blog-award-nominations.html Please send any comments or information on other cases and issues of interest to the readers of this blog to: hlevy15@gmail.com.  Harold Levy: Publisher: The Charles Smith Blog;
-----------------------------------------------------------------
FINAL WORD:  (Applicable to all of our wrongful conviction cases):  "Whenever there is a wrongful conviction, it exposes errors in our criminal legal system, and we hope that this case — and lessons from it — can prevent future injustices."
Lawyer Radha Natarajan:
Executive Director: New England Innocence Project;
—————————————————————————————————
FINAL, FINAL WORD (FOR NOW!): "Since its inception, the Innocence Project has pushed the criminal legal system to confront and correct the laws and policies that cause and contribute to wrongful convictions.   They never shied away from the hard cases — the ones involving eyewitness identifications, confessions, and bite marks. Instead, in the course of presenting scientific evidence of innocence, they’ve exposed the unreliability of evidence that was, for centuries, deemed untouchable." So true!
Christina Swarns: Executive Director: The Innocence Project;
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