Monday, January 25, 2021

Forensic science reform: (Part One): Important story in The Intercept on President Biden's appointment of mathematician and molecular biologist Eric Lander to a key science policy post. It's by Jordan Smith, one of the finest criminal justice reporters in the U.S., who asks: "Will bringing science back to the White House reinvigorate forensic reform?"


QUOTE  OF THE DAY: "Quick to respond was C. Michael Bowers, a forensic dentist in California who was among the first to sound the alarm about problems with his colleagues’ bite-mark analysis. He has since become an outspoken critic of the practice and has worked to exonerate people convicted on the basis of bite-mark evidence. “Please work unreliable forensics into your agenda,” he wrote. “It will save lives." (Check out Michael Bower's superlative Blog 'CSIDDS: Forensics and Law in Focus at: https://csidds.com...HL).

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PASSAGE OF THE DAY: "While Lander’s career has not been without controversy, his role in a September 2016 report has many in the criminal legal system hopeful about his return to the White House. That fall, PCAST did not mince words, concluding that a host of long-used pattern-matching forensic practices lacked sufficient scientific underpinning. “Neither experience, nor judgment, nor good professional practices … can substitute for actual evidence of foundational validity and reliability,” the members wrote. “It is an empirical matter for which only empirical evidence is relevant.”

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PASSAGE TWO OF THE DAY: "As it turned out, the prosecutors and industry groups had little to fear. The momentum toward reform was stopped in its tracks when Trump assumed office and tapped Sen. Jeff Sessions to take over as attorney general. A former prosecutor, Sessions had made his position clear when responding to the NAS report back in 2009, with a bit of his own misleading language. “I don’t think we should suggest that those proven scientific principles that we’ve been using for decades are somehow uncertain,” he saidSessions quickly put an end to the National Commission on Forensic Science and installed Kansas City, Missouri, prosecutor Ted Hunt as the head of a mysterious forensics working group that never appeared to do much at all. The planned FBI stress test never happened. Trump didn’t bother to appoint a director of science policy until nearly two years after taking office (he appointed a meteorologist), and he didn’t enlist PCAST until November 2019; in all, the group met just four times."

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STORY: "Will bringing science back to the White House reinvigorate forensic reform?, by Jordan  Smith, published by 'The Intercept', on January 22, 2021. (Jordan Smith is a state and national award-winning investigative journalist based in Austin, Texas. She has covered criminal justice for more than 20 years and, during that time, has developed a reputation as a resourceful and dogged reporter with a talent for analyzing complex social and legal issues. She is regarded as one of the best investigative reporters in Texas. A longtime staff writer for the Austin Chronicle, her work has also appeared in The Nation, the Crime Report, and Salon, among other places.)

SUB-HEADING: "Biden's pick for top  science advisor co-authored a damning report on the faulty forensic practices behind hundreds of  wrongful convictions." 

GIST: It wasn't  long after the incoming Biden administration announced its nominees for key science policy posts that Twitter began to celebrate with #ScienceIsBack. Among those using the hashtag was Eric Lander, a mathematician and molecular biologist who played a lead role in mapping the human genome, and whom Joe Biden had just nominated to be director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

“Tremendously excited to work alongside so many bright minds to advise the President-elect and push the boundaries of what we dare to believe is possible,” Lander posted on January 15. “We need everyone. #ScienceIsBack.”

This isn’t the first time Lander has been tapped to advise the White House; under former President Barack Obama, Lander served as co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology. During his tenure, Lander was involved in 39 reports the group wrote on a wide variety of topics, including antibiotic resistance, big data and privacy, and climate change.

While Lander’s career has not been without controversy, his role in a September 2016 report has many in the criminal legal system hopeful about his return to the White House. That fall, PCAST did not mince words, concluding that a host of long-used pattern-matching forensic practices lacked sufficient scientific underpinning. “Neither experience, nor judgment, nor good professional practices … can substitute for actual evidence of foundational validity and reliability,” the members wrote. “It is an empirical matter for which only empirical evidence is relevant.”

After four years of the Trump administration, which saw federally driven efforts at reforming forensics grind to a halt, many hope that having Lander and other well-respected scientists in key policy positions will reinvigorate those initiatives. “He knows the challenges we face scientifically and operationally,” said Max Houck, a forensic expert with the Global Forensic and Justice Center at Florida International University and the editor-in-chief of an international forensics journal. “I think when he gets around to addressing issues in forensic science, at least he does it with foreknowledge.”

Progress Stops Here:

Save for DNA analysis, forensic science disciplines were mainly developed according to the needs of law enforcement — bereft of scientific underpinning. That’s particularly true of so-called pattern-matching practices like fingerprint analysis, firearm analysis, bite-mark analysis, shoe tread analysis, and handwriting analysis, all of which involve an “expert” looking at a piece of evidence and visually tying it to a suspect.

PCAST was not the first body to point out the lack of scientific foundation to these practices. In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences released a landmark study titled “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward,” which questioned the basis of nearly every forensic discipline used to arrest, prosecute, and send people to prison. With the exception of DNA analysis, it found, “no forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source.”

The release of the NAS report led to massive upheaval in the forensics community, a seismic disruption that is still playing out. Many practitioners — including in the fingerprint community — embraced the criticisms of the NAS and quickly set on a course to shore up their practices. Others, like the forensic dentists who continue to peddle bite-mark analysis, were defiant, claiming that their practices were invaluable and reliable — notwithstanding more than 30 wrongful convictions based on bite-mark evidence.

It was amid this backdrop that the Obama administration got to work. In 2013, the Department of Justice formed the National Commission on Forensic Science to “enhance the practice and improve the reliability of forensic science.” In February 2016, at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, then-Deputy Attorney General and forensics commission co-chair Sally Yates announced that the Justice Department would be conducting a “stress test” on various disciplines performed in the FBI lab as a means to ensure the “public’s ongoing confidence in the work we do.”

Some six months later, PCAST issued its report. Its conclusions were in line with the NAS report, but PCAST was more blunt about the need for rigorous scientific testing of pattern-matching practices: “Without appropriate estimates of accuracy, an examiner’s statement that two samples are similar — or even indistinguishable — is scientifically meaningless: It has no probative value and considerable potential for prejudicial impact.”

The pushback, even within the Obama administration, was swift. Attorney General Loretta Lynch suggested that the Justice Department would ignore PCAST’s conclusions; the FBI balked, saying the conclusions were overbroad. A crime lab industry trade and lobbying group claimed that members of PCAST were biased. The National District Attorneys Association made wild-eyed claims that seemed to miss the point of the report entirely, including that the maligned forensic practices were “reliably used every day” and the recommendations for reform were “scientifically irresponsible.”


As it turned out, the prosecutors and industry groups had little to fear. The momentum toward reform was stopped in its tracks when Trump assumed office and tapped Sen. Jeff Sessions to take over as attorney general. A former prosecutor, Sessions had made his position clear when responding to the NAS report back in 2009, with a bit of his own misleading language. “I don’t think we should suggest that those proven scientific principles that we’ve been using for decades are somehow uncertain,” he said.

Sessions quickly put an end to the National Commission on Forensic Science and installed Kansas City, Missouri, prosecutor Ted Hunt as the head of a mysterious forensics working group that never appeared to do much at all. The planned FBI stress test never happened. Trump didn’t bother to appoint a director of science policy until nearly two years after taking office (he appointed a meteorologist), and he didn’t enlist PCAST until November 2019; in all, the group met just four times.

Of course, to say that the Trump administration did nothing on forensics isn’t entirely true. On January 13, the Justice Department posted a 26-page statement responding to the 2016 PCAST report. While there is no author attached, it reflects statements that Hunt, Sessions, and other critics of reform have previously made. (The Justice Department did not respond to questions about who authored the statement and whether it was reviewed by experts either inside or outside the department.)

The critique, four years later, asserts that pattern-matching practices are based on subjective eyeballing of evidence by technical experts and as such don’t belong to the branch of science known as metrology (the study of measurement). That’s just fine, the statement argues, and shouldn’t have any bearing on whether the techniques are admissible in court.

“The argument is that because [forensic practitioners] take no measurements — a fundamental tenant of science — the PCAST critique is irrelevant because pattern matching techniques are not part of metrology; eyeballing the evidence is good science, in other words,” Chris Fabricant, director of strategic litigation at the Innocence Project, wrote in an email to The Intercept. “It’s like arguing that because my airplane doesn’t have wings, it’s immune from the laws of thermodynamics.”

Ultimately, Fabricant wrote, posting the statement just seven days before the end of the Trump presidency sends a singular message: “It seems an effort to draw a line in the sand on the way out the door: Progress stops here.”

The Cost of Faulty Forensics:

In addition to heading up the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Lander was also nominated to serve as presidential science adviser, which Biden is elevating to a Cabinet position. In a three-page letter to Lander, Biden laid out five broad questions that he’d like his science advisers to address in order to ensure a “healthier, safer, more just, peaceful, and prosperous world.” While there are certainly pressing matters to focus on — the pandemic, the climate crisis — reforming forensics would fit within the goals that Biden has expressed.

Indeed, as a member of the Innocence Project’s board of directors, Lander no doubt understands the human cost of continuing to use faulty forensic practices.

To date, flawed forensics have led to hundreds of wrongful convictions. Roughly a quarter of the more than 2,700 cases in the National Registry of Exonerations involved faulty or misleading forensic evidence; forensic errors have been implicated in about half of the more than 500 exonerations based on DNA testing.

Peter Stout, president and CEO of the Houston Forensic Science Center, one of the nation’s only independent public sector crime labs, says the challenges around forensic science are nuanced and include the fact that forensics have never had a true home in the federal government. To date, the federal government’s modest support for forensics has generally been through its law enforcement arms, which the NAS report concluded left labs and practitioners vulnerable to bias. Instead, the NAS suggested that a “new, strong, and independent entity” should be created that could help with standards, research, and funding for the nation’s disaggregated forensics community.

That hasn’t happened, but Stout says he’s encouraged that with “legitimate scientists” being appointed to Biden’s administration, there may come an “opportunity for a realistic discussion about what really is going to have to happen and the number of dollar signs that go with that.”

In addition to Lander, Biden has tapped other renowned scientists to head up his administration’s efforts to inject science into the major policy decisions ahead, including Alondra Nelson, president of the Social Science Research Council and a professor at Princeton, who was nominated to become deputy director for science and society at the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

“Sound science will touch every aspect of what the Biden Administration does — from new policy, to addressing social inequality, to the implications of new technologies,” Nelson posted to Twitter on January 15. “Inclusive and trustworthy science will have a place in government.”

Quick to respond was C. Michael Bowers, a forensic dentist in California who was among the first to sound the alarm about problems with his colleagues’ bite-mark analysis. He has since become an outspoken critic of the practice and has worked to exonerate people convicted on the basis of bite-mark evidence. “Please work unreliable forensics into your agenda,” he wrote. “It will save lives.""

The entire article can be read at:

https://theintercept.com/2021/01/22/biden-forensic-science-eric-lander

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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Sunday, January 24, 2021

Dion Harrell: RIP: New Jersey: Such a terribly sad story. It truly belongs in our 'enough to make one weep' department. Apart from the fact that the wrongful rape conviction haunted him for the rest of his all-too short life, the thought that he had to fight for 20 years to get the DNA testing - even after he got out of prison - is infuriating. Also infuriating, is the sorely flawed forensic evidence that led to his wrongful conviction in the first place - as evidenced by the entry by Maurice Possley in The Registry of Exonerations, which I have included below.. (HL)


WORDS TO HEED: FROM OUR POST ON KEVIN COOPER'S  APPLICATION FOR POST-CONVICTION DNA TESTING (CALIFORNIA):
"Blogger/extraordinaire Jeff Gamso's blunt, unequivocal, unforgettable message to the powers that be in California: "JUST TEST THE FUCKING DNA." (Oh yes, Gamso raises, as he does in many of his posts, an important philosophical question: This post is headed: "What is truth, said jesting Pilate.")..."So what's the harm? What, exactly, are they scared of? Don't we want the truth?" 

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PASSAGE OF THE DAY: "His first victory came in 2016, when the Innocence Project obtained DNA testing showing Harrell was not the rapist state prosecutors made him out to be. “He was such a dedicated advocate,” said Michelle Feldman, the state campaigns director at the Innocence Project, who appeared alongside Harrell at public hearings in recent years, where Harrell and other advocates pleaded with lawmakers to beef up protections for people who may have been wrongly convicted. “He fought for two decades to get DNA testing, even after he got out of prison. He knew he was innocent and wanted to clear his name.”


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PASSAGE TWO OF THE DAY: "The indignities of his wrongful conviction continued long after his 1988 trial." Last year, an appeals court denied him compensation for his time behind bars based on a legal technicality. Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration spent two years fighting his claim for compensation under New Jersey’s Mistaken Imprisonment Act, arguing he filed for it too late. Facing scrutiny over the legal fight, state authorities relented and settled with Harrell last year. The sum was not disclosed, but under state law he was entitled to $50,000 for every year he spent locked up. He just received payment in April. “It’s just a tragic end to a tragic story,” said state Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, one of several lawmakers who introduced legislation geared toward correcting wrongful convictions that was inspired by Harrell’s case. “His memory will live on and it will benefit other people,” O’Scanlon said. “God willing, not many — we don’t want any wrongful convictions — but when they happen, they need to be corrected."


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STORY: "N.J. man dies suddenly after winning decades-long fight to clear his name  and help wrongly convicted," by reporter S.P. Sullivan, published by N.J. Com on January 22, 2020.


GIST: "Dion Harrell never had much in this world, but when New Jersey’s justice system took his freedom and left him with a scarlet letter, he fought like hell to get his life back.


He died suddenly Jan. 15.


He was found outside his Long Branch home. No foul play was suspected, and Harrell’s family said they believe he suffered a medical episode.


He was 53.


Harrell was wrongly convicted of raping a 17-year-old girl in 1988, a case of mistaken identity. He served four years in prison and spent more than two decades on a sex offender registry, trying to clear his name.


His first victory came in 2016, when the Innocence Project obtained DNA testing showing Harrell was not the rapist state prosecutors made him out to be.


“He was such a dedicated advocate,” said Michelle Feldman, the state campaigns director at the Innocence Project, who appeared alongside Harrell at public hearings in recent years, where Harrell and other advocates pleaded with lawmakers to beef up protections for people who may have been wrongly convicted.


“He fought for two decades to get DNA testing, even after he got out of prison. He knew he was innocent and wanted to clear his name.”


Harrell’s conviction haunted him for the rest of his life, said his cousin, Bryan Brodie. As the family was awaiting the results of his autopsy, Brodie said, “He was dealing with a lot of demons from this case, and that’s what ultimately killed him.”


He loved his two children and three grandchildren, Brodie said, and he enjoyed fishing, working on cars and watching basketball.


“Dion was a kind person, a giving person,” his cousin said. Brodie recounted a story he heard in recent days from a friend: Harrell had spent the night at his friend’s house, but departed early in the morning. He left behind a thank-you note and a $100 bill.


“That’s the type of guy he was,” Brodie said.


Harrell was not a rich man.


He was twice convicted of failing to comply with the onerous rules of the sex offender registry program, struggled to find jobs and housing, and couldn’t even be around his own children without supervision before his conviction was overturned.


“People looked at me the wrong way,” Harrell told NJ Advance Media last year. “I come to a barbecue, people say, ‘Watch out for the kids, he’s here.’”


The indignities of his wrongful conviction continued long after his 1988 trial.


Last year, an appeals court denied him compensation for his time behind bars based on a legal technicality. Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration spent two years fighting his claim for compensation under New Jersey’s Mistaken Imprisonment Act, arguing he filed for it too late.


Facing scrutiny over the legal fight, state authorities relented and settled with Harrell last year. The sum was not disclosed, but under state law he was entitled to $50,000 for every year he spent locked up.


He just received payment in April.


“It’s just a tragic end to a tragic story,” said state Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, one of several lawmakers who introduced legislation geared toward correcting wrongful convictions that was inspired by Harrell’s case.


“His memory will live on and it will benefit other people,” O’Scanlon said. “God willing, not many — we don’t want any wrongful convictions — but when they happen, they need to be corrected.""


The entire story can be read at:


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Read the National Registry of Exonerations entry by Maurice Possley at the link below:

PASSAGE OF THE DAY: "In 1997, while still in prison, Harrell wrote to the Innocence Project in New York requesting DNA testing. The Innocence Project, which has a backlog of more than 10,000 such requests, agreed to take on his case in 2013. An investigation of the case showed that the crime lab analyst’s testimony was erroneous. It was not the case that 98 percent of the male population could be eliminated as the source of the sample. In fact, none of the male population could be excluded, the evidence showed. Dr. Joseph Warren, an expert in forensic biology, examined the laboratory reports and the trial transcript and concluded that the prosecution’s crime lab analyst had made “egregious misstatements of conventional serology and statistics” which were “contrary to scientific principles generally accepted at the time (and today).”

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ENTRY: "Not long after 10 p.m. on September 18, 1988, a 17-year-old girl was walking home from her job at a McDonald’s restaurant in Long Branch, New Jersey, when a man dragged her off the street and raped her.

Three days later, she saw 22-year-old Dion Harrell in the parking lot of the McDonald’s and believed he was her attacker. Police picked up Harrell and brought him to a police station where Harrell protested his innocence. He pleaded with the police to take him to see the victim under the belief that if she saw him, she would realize her mistake. Although this was not typical procedure, the police finally relented and took Harrell into the room where the victim was and she confirmed her identification of him as the rapist.

Harrell was charged with second-degree sexual assault and third-degree theft. He went to trial in Monmouth County Circuit Court in May 1992.

The victim identified him as her attacker. A New Jersey State Police crime laboratory analyst testified that based on blood typing analysis, Harrell was among only 2 percent of the population who could not be eliminated as the source of the semen found in a rape kit. DNA testing was not available at that time in New Jersey.

Harrell testified and denied the attack. He said that on the night of the rape, he played basketball with a group of friends, including a police detective, and later rode his bicycle with a nephew to a friend’s house where he remained until he went home about 12:30 a.m. The detective testified that he had played basketball with Harrell on several occasions, but could not remember if he played with Harrell on the night of the rape. Harrell’s mother and sister testified that he came home from basketball, showered and went to his friend’s house with his nephew around 10:30. A woman testified she saw Harrell and his nephew riding their bikes and the friend testified that Harrell and the nephew were at his house until 12:30 a.m. 

On May 19, 1992, the jury convicted Harrell of second-degree sexual assault and acquitted him of the theft charge. Harrell was sentenced to eight years in prison.

He was released on parole after four years in prison and was required to register as a sex offender. Over the next several years, he was twice convicted of failing to properly register and was sentenced to probation. He drifted in and out of homelessness and was unable to get and maintain a job because he was on the sex offender registry.

In 1997, while still in prison, Harrell wrote to the Innocence Project in New York requesting DNA testing. The Innocence Project, which has a backlog of more than 10,000 such requests, agreed to take on his case in 2013. An investigation of the case showed that the crime lab analyst’s testimony was erroneous. It was not the case that 98 percent of the male population could be eliminated as the source of the sample. In fact, none of the male population could be excluded, the evidence showed.

Dr. Joseph Warren, an expert in forensic biology, examined the laboratory reports and the trial transcript and concluded that the prosecution’s crime lab analyst had made “egregious misstatements of conventional serology and statistics” which were “contrary to scientific principles generally accepted at the time (and today).”

In November 2013, the Innocence Project sought the physical evidence in the case from the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office. Officials said the evidence no longer existed. However, in the fall of 2014, the Prosecutor’s Office said it had located slides made from the rape kit.

However, the prosecution opposed testing the evidence on the basis that state law only allowed testing if defendants were in custody. Attorney Vanessa Potkin, Director of Post-Conviction Litigation for the Innocence Project, argued that spending 20 years on a sex offender registry restricted his life made it fundamentally unfair to deny him evidence that could prove his innocence, and that long-established common law also provided an avenue for the court to order testing. Moreover, Potkin noted that the National District Attorney’s Association had adopted a policy that DNA testing should be performed in any case at any stage, even after all appeals had been exhausted, if the testing could determine innocence.

In February 2015, two weeks before a judge was to rule on the motion for testing, the Prosecutor’s Office agreed to allow the testing to be performed.

While the testing was being performed, the Innocence Project’s policy reform team worked to change the law in New Jersey. In November 2015, the state expanded the law to allow for DNA testing for defendants after their prison terms are over.

In July 2016, the DNA test results excluded Harrell as the rapist and the prosecution said it would ask that Harrell’s conviction be vacated.

On August 3, 2016, the conviction was vacated and the case was dismissed. The prosecution also requested that his two convictions for failing to register be vacated. That motion was granted and those charges also were dismissed.

In July 2018, Harrell filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking compensation for his wrongful conviction. In August 2018, Harrell filed a claim for compensation with the state of New Jersey. In June 2020, the claim was settled for $250,000.

In January 2021, Harrell passed away in Long Branch, New Jersey."



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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;
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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 23, 2021

'Martinsville 7': (Part Two): Virginia, 1951. Threatening the Black men accused of raping a white woman that they would be released to a lynch mob unless they confessed: I thought to myself that this case was an exception - and far from the rule. Then I remembered 'The Norfolk Four.' HL..."In July 1997, the rape and murder of a Navy sailor’s wife shocked the town of Norfolk, Virginia. Also shocking was the fact that four Navy sailors, Danial Williams, Joseph Dick, Derick Tice, and Eric Wilson, falsely confessed to the crime. These men became known as the “Norfolk Four.” A Norfolk detective, with a history of eliciting false confessions, interrogated the four sailors. Each confessed to the crime, “alter[ing] their confessions to accommodate details fed to them by the police.” Nearly twenty years later, a federal judge vacated two of the convictions. Less than a year later, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe pardoned the four men."


PUBLISHER'S NOTE:  (One): This Blog is interested in false confessions because of the disturbing number of exonerations in the USA, Canada and multiple other jurisdictions throughout the world, where, in the absence of incriminating forensic evidence the conviction is based on self-incrimination – and because of the growing body of  scientific research showing how vulnerable suspects (especially young suspects)  are to widely used interrogation methods  such as  the notorious ‘Reid Technique.’ As  all too many of this Blog's post have shown, I also recognize that pressure for false confessions can take many forms, up to and including physical violence, even physical and mental torture.

Harold Levy: Publisher; The Charles Smith Blog:

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PUBLISHERS NOTE: (Two): In a previous post,  'Martinsville 7' Part One,' I focussed on a travesty of justice in Virginia in 1951, in which seven  Black men were executed.  on charges they had raped a white woman two years earlier. Francis DeSales Grayson, Frank Hairston Jr.Howard HairstonJames Luther HairstonJoe Henry HamptonBooker T. Millner, and John ClabonTaylor  were interrogated by police without the appointment of legal counsel and, under threats that they would be released to a lynch mob, confessed to involvement in the rape. After a succession of perfunctory trials before all -white, all-male juries, each was convicted and sentenced to death. Their sentences were carried out in the largest mass execution for rape in the history of the United States. The story behind this abomination of justice is told on a podcast produced by The Death Penalty information Center, a phenomenal source of information relevant to this Blog. My initial reaction, on reading about the unthinkable  police conduct which led the false confessions, was to think that such a case was the exception and far from the rule. However, within seconds I thought about another Virginia case involving outrageous police behaviour  which which occurred almost half a century later (in 1997) - the case of The Norfolk Four, the subject of several previous posts on this Blog.  The case of the Norfolk Four was described by Laura Morehouse, a graduate of the Georgetown University Law School, an article which appeared in the 'American Criminal Law Review' under the heading, 'Confess or die: Threatening a subject with the death penalty should render confessions involuntary.' (I find it pretty shocking that a Law Review article should be necessary to make this point in the U.S.A. HL):

Harold Levy: Publisher: The Charles Smith Blog.

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PASSAGE OF THE DAY: "The Norfolk Four case reveals that the police sometimes obtain false confessions from innocent suspects during interrogations. In the case of the Norfolk Four, the police used a number of tactics to elicit the false confessions. Danial Williams explained that the lead detective “treated him like a criminal from the outset, poking him in the chest, yelling in his face, calling him a liar and telling him, falsely, that he’d failed a polygraph test and that a witness saw him go into the [victim’s] apartment." Eric Wilson said that the lead detective “hit him several times and showed him photos of the crime scene and the victim and gave him details about the crime to include in his confession.” The police employed one additional tactic. Because the crime at issue involved the rape and murder of a young woman, all four men faced the death penalty under Virginia law if convicted.  The police used this to their advantage and threatened the men with the death penalty during the interrogations. The police told them that the only way to avoid the death penalty was to confess. Under the threat of the death penalty, the Norfolk Four falsely confessed to a crime they did not commit.  When the police interrogated the true killer over one year later, they told him he could “escape the death penalty” if he implicated the Norfolk Four in his confession.  The killer did so in exchange for two life sentences, rather than the death penalty.."

ARTICLE: "Confess or die: Why threatening a suspect with the death penalty should render confessions involuntary," by Laura Morehouse, published by the 'American Criminal Law Review' in 2019. Volume 56, Page 531; 2019.

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GIST: As this this is a rather lengthy article here is a taste! "In July 1997, the rape and murder of a Navy sailor’s wife shocked the town of Norfolk, Virginia. Even more shocking was the fact that four Navy sailors, Danial Williams, Joseph Dick, Derick Tice, and Eric Wilson, falsely confessed to the crime.  These men became known as the “Norfolk Four.” A Norfolk detective, with a history of eliciting false confessions, interrogated the four sailors.  Each confessed to the crime, “alter[ing] their confessions to accommodate details fed to them by the police.”  Nearly twenty years later, a federal judge vacated two of the convictions.  Less than a year later, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe pardoned the four men.  The Norfolk Four case reveals that the police sometimes obtain false confessions from innocent suspects during interrogations. In the case of the Norfolk Four, the police used a number of tactics to elicit the false confessions. Danial Williams explained that the lead detective “treated him like a criminal from the outset, poking him in the chest, yelling in his face, calling him a liar and telling him, falsely, that he’d failed a polygraph test and that a witness saw him go into the [victim’s] apartment.” Eric Wilson said that the lead detective “hit him several times and showed him photos of the crime scene and the victim and gave him details about the crime to include in his confession.”  The police employed one additional tactic. Because the crime at issue involved the rape and murder of a young woman, all four men faced the death penalty under Virginia law if convicted.  The police used this to their advantage and threatened the men with the death penalty during the interrogations. The police told them that the only way to avoid the death penalty was to confess.9Under the threat of the death penalty, the Norfolk Four falsely confessed to a crime they did not commit.  When the police interrogated the true killer over one year later, they told him he could “escape the death penalty” if he implicated the Norfolk Four in his confession.11 The killer did so in exchange for two life sentences, rather than the death penalty."

ANOTHER PASSAGE: "The Norfolk Four are hardly alone in being convicted after a false confession.  Another oft-cited case where a false confession led to a wrongful conviction is that of Christopher Ochoa, who was convicted of the rape and murder of a young woman in Texas. (Convicted on 05/05 1989):  In Mr. Ochoa’s case, the police told him that he would receive the death penalty unless he cooperated, going so far as to “show[] him photos of death row” and “point[] out the spot on his left arm where the needle would be inserted." Mr. Ochoa has since been exonerated and has sought to bring awareness to the problem posed by false confessions, stating that coerced and false confessions “happen[] a lot more often than people think[.]” While it is impossible to know exactly how often police elicit false confessions,  the experiences of people like the Norfolk Four and Mr. Ochoa illustrate that false confessions do happen, and they can lead to innocent people being wrongfully convicted."

The entire article can be read at:

https://www.law.georgetown.edu/american-criminal-law-review/wp-content/uploads/sites/15/2019/04/56-2-Confess-or-Die-Why-Threatening-a-Suspect-with-the-Death-Penalty-Should-Render-Confessions-Involuntary.pdf

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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Friday, January 22, 2021

Martinsville 7: False confession travesty: In February 1951, Virginia executed seven Black men on charges they had raped a white woman two years earlier. They were interrogated by police without the appointment of legal counsel and, under threats that they would be released to a lynch mob, confessed to involvement in the rape. After a succession of perfunctory trials before all-white, all-male juries, each was convicted and sentenced to death. Their sentences were carried out in the largest mass execution for rape in the history of the United States. A new 'Death Penalty Information Center' podcast, features advocates who are seeking a posthumous pardon for them.



PUBLISHER'S NOTE: This Blog is interested in false confessions, past and present, because of the disturbing number of exonerations in the USA, Canada and multiple other jurisdictions throughout the world, where, in the absence of incriminating forensic evidence the conviction is based on self-incrimination – and because of the growing body of  scientific research showing how vulnerable suspects (especially young suspects)  are to widely used interrogation methods  such as  the notorious ‘Reid Technique.’ As  all too many of this Blog's post have shown, I also recognize that pressure for false confessions can take many forms, up to and including physical violence, even physical and mental torture.

Harold Levy: Publisher; The Charles Smith Blog:

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PASSAGE OF THE DAY: The letter to Governor Northam requesting the pardons states: “The Martinsville Seven were not given adequate due process ‘simply for being black,’ they were sentenced to death for a crime that a white person would not have been executed for ‘simply for being black,’ and they were killed, by the Commonwealth, ‘simply for being black.’” 

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ACCESS PODCAST: "Injustice in Virginia': The case of the Martinsville 7,' at:


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POST: New podcast: Martinsville 7: "Advocates seek posthumous pardon for Black man executed by Virginia after all-white jury convicted them of raping a white woman," published by The Death Penalty Information Center on January 21, 2021.

GIST: "In February 1951, Virginia executed seven Black men on charges they had raped a white woman two years earlier. The “Martinsville 7” — Francis DeSales Grayson, Frank Hairston Jr.Howard HairstonJames Luther HairstonJoe Henry HamptonBooker T. Millner, and John ClabonTaylor — were interrogated by police without the appointment of legal counsel and, under threats that they would be released to a lynch mob, confessed to involvement in the rape. After a succession of perfunctory trials before all-white, all-male juries, each was convicted and sentenced to death. Their sentences were carried out in the largest mass execution for rape in the history of the United States. 

Seventy years later, family members of the men and legal advocates are spearheading an effort to posthumously pardon the men and redress a miscarriage of justice. In the January 21, 2021 episode of the Discussions With DPIC podcast, Rudolph McCollum and Liz Ryan join DPIC Managing Director Anne Holsinger for a conversation about those efforts. McCollum, a former mayor of Richmond, is the nephew of two of the men who were executed. Ryan is the president and CEO of the Youth First Initiative, which advocates for community-based alternatives to youth incarceration. They discuss what happened to the Martinsville 7, what a posthumous pardon could mean for the state and family members of the executed men, and how the case fits into the history of racial injustice in Virginia and current efforts to repeal the Commonwealth’s death penalty. 

McCollum and Ryan are part of a group of advocates that have asked Virginia Governor Ralph Northam to posthumously pardon the Martinsville 7. “This was a miscarriage of justice,” Ryan said. “These men were never afforded due process. And it’s very likely that there was a rush to judgment” beginning at the time of arrest. Ryan points to deep problems with the investigative and legal process in the case. There were “a lot of issues,” she said. “They were interrogated without the presence of attorneys. Their families believe that their confessions were forced. [It’s] likely many of them were false confessions, because they were told to ‘confess to this’ or meet the mob outside.” 

Holsinger placed the treatment of the men in historical context. She noted that “[f]rom 1900 until the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited the death penalty in 1977 for crimes in which no one was killed, Virginia executed 73 Black men or boys on charges of rape, attempted rape, or robbery. In that same time period, it didn’t execute a single white person for those crimes. And it has never in the history of the Commonwealth executed any white man for raping a Black woman or girl.” 

McCollum explained that southern states have historically used the criminal legal system to intimidate and control the Black community. “The purpose of lynchings, and I believe the purpose of even state action such as this, were to send a message to the Black community,” he said. “And it is just part of a whole society system that was put in place to limit people. This was just one more action to send a message that if you cross the line, we are going to ensure that you — not just you, who actually may have been involved in an illegal activity — but the entire community, recognizes that there are limits that we will set in place. They’re set in place for a purpose. If you cross them, there will be consequences.” 

Ryan called the death penalty in America a “legal lynching.” “And the fact that it’s imposed most harshly on people of color — particularly Black men — just tells you that it’s that it’s unfair and should be abolished,” she said. “We should not allow this to happen.” 

The posthumous pardon request comes at a time in which Northam has sponsored a death-penalty repeal bill in the state. McCollum said that this coalescence “speaks to me as some divine intervention, of how there can be some opportunity for these issues to be closed at the same time and make way for a new day.” 

The letter to Governor Northam requesting the pardons states: “The Martinsville Seven were not given adequate due process ‘simply for being black,’ they were sentenced to death for a crime that a white person would not have been executed for ‘simply for being black,’ and they were killed, by the Commonwealth, ‘simply for being black.’” 

“My religion teaches me that there is no redemption without repentance,” McCollum told Holsinger. “And so, if we truly want to move forward as a society, we need to recognize that when wrongs are committed that they need to be corrected. But they can’t be corrected, unless there’s an admission … that there was a wrong which occurred. Once we do that, then we can truly be free as a society. We can move towards redemption from that and make way for a better world in which we can all live together.” 

Ryan echoed McCollum’s sentiment. A posthumous pardon, she said, “can’t bring the men back. It can’t redress all the grievances over the last 70 years. But it’s one step. It’s one acknowledgement of a wrong. It’s a very important acknowledgement.""

The entire post can be read at:

https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/new-podcast-martinsville-7-advocates-seek-posthumous-pardon-for-7-black-men-executed-by-virginia-after-all-white-jury-convicted-them-of-raping-a-white-woman

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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;
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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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