An Open Letter to President Obama-Address Wrongful Convictions


An Open Letter to President Obama

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

Washington, DC 20500

                                                            May 17, 2012 (updated on May 21st)

Dear Mr. President:

Your comments in support of same-sex marriage have garnered you a Newsweek cover with the headline “The First Gay President.”  I applaud you for using your powerful voice in favor of a civil rights issue, but I would also like for you to use your voice to speak out against wrongful convictions.  On May 21, 2012, a report was released about the number of wrongful conviction exonerations since 1989.  As reported by Newsone “A new registry compiled by two major universities reveals that more than 2,000 prisoners were incorrectly imprisoned for serious crimes since 1989. After perusing the registry, it has been uncovered that more than half of the newly exonerated prisoners were African American, according to Newser” (http://newsone.com/2016580/study-half-of-wrongly-accused-prisoners-are-black/). The registry was compiled by the University of Michigan School of Law and Northwestern University School of Law. 

It is common belief by those who study wrongful convictions that this is a small representation of the many people who have been wrongfully convicted and incarcerated.  And, as stated on the Innocence Project’s webpage, the average time that these individuals spend in prison is 13 years!   (http://www.innocenceproject.org/Content/Facts_on_PostConviction_DNA_Exonerations.php).

The Department of Justice has come under fire for its handling of the late Senator Ted Stevens prosecution, including revelations that Department of Justice prosecutors withheld evidence (http://www.npr.org/2012/03/15/148687717/report-prosecutors-hid-evidence-in-ted-stevens-case).  As President of the United States of America, you should make a definitive statement about practices that result in a wrongful conviction, including withholding exculpatory evidence.

            Also, a recent Washington Post series highlighted additional cases of wrongful convictions pursued by the Department of Justice. The opening paragraph of one article in the series begins: “Justice Department officials have known for years that flawed forensic work might have led to the convictions of potentially innocent people, but prosecutors failed to notify defendants or their attorneys even in many cases they knew were troubled” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/crime/convicted-defendants-left-uninformed-of-forensic-flaws-found-by-justice-dept/2012/04/16/gIQAWTcgMT_story.html).  This is extremely troubling. This issue goes beyond extending marriage rights to two consenting adults (although well-deserved), but it goes to the issue of basic liberty and freedom from an unjust incarceration. Just as the federal government during the 1980s encouraged states to build more prisons and to enhance their criminal penalties in response to the “War on Drugs,” the federal government should take a lead on encouraging states to make DNA testing more available, establish Conviction Integrity Units similar to the one established by the Dallas County, Texas District Attorney’s Office, and Actual Innocence Inquiry Commissions such as the one established in North Carolina, and other such measures to help those with legitimate and valid claims of innocence.

Following your statement on same sex marriages, it was reported that one in six of your top campaign bundlers openly identified themselves as gay (http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Elections/President/2012/0511/Gay-marriage-Clooney-fundraiser-a-hint-of-coming-Obama-money-boom-video). People who are wrongfully convicted and their families are often without funds due to the costly toll a wrongful conviction has on the inmate and the family.  But you should stand up for those who are wrongfully convicted purely on principle. Since the federal government has been involved and chastised for its role in a wrongful conviction, it would be more than a symbolic gesture if you spoke out against prosecutorial misconduct and in favor of policies and procedures that would limit the number of innocent people serving time in prison and the time that they serve. Wrongful convictions should never be tolerated or sanctioned.   This would not codling criminals; rather, it would be ensuring that the integrity of the system is upheld. 

Law and Order

I realize that Democrats have won elected offices on a law and order platform, a Democratic Congress helped to craft and pass legislation that resulted in harsh drug laws (mandatory minimums for crack and power, for example), and a Democratic President pushed through a Crime Bill in 1994 that also had enhanced criminal penalties, but as the lead Democrat in your party and as President of the United States, you should look beyond what is going to appear favorable towards your party and look at what is beneficial to the nation as a whole.  An innocent person in prison because of actions by the state is a human rights issue.  We need to end the practice of prosecutors and law enforcement callously playing with human lives. 

Republicans in Congress have been vocal on perceived injustices by the criminal justice system when it has related to individuals that they have identified with, individuals such as former Border Patrol Agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean.  On July 25, 2007 Congressman Ted Poe introduced an amendment to the Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations bill that, to quote from Congressman Poe’s webpage, would free two imprisoned border agents.  Specifically, as stated on Congressman Poe’s website, the Poe/Tancredo/Hunter Amendment to the Commerce Justice and Science FY 08 Appropriations would withhold federal funds to enforce the judgment and sentencing of Border Agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean.  It passed the US House of Representatives by voice vote  (http://poe.house.gov/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=7902&catid=102:speeches).  These border agents were convicted by a jury of their peers for shooting an alleged Mexican drug smuggler on the US Mexican border.  Conservative radio talk shows hosts, including Laura Ingraham and Ed Hendee, had criticized the arrest and sentencing of these border agents.  Conservative members of the Texas Congressional delegation including Ted Poe and Senator John Cornyn had spent countless hours on a major radio station in Texas (KSEV) criticizing U.S. prosecutor ( for the Western District of Texas) Johnny Sutton and the sentencing guidelines that required these agents to be sentenced to 11 and 12 years of prison time.  California Republican member of Congress Dana Rohrabacher was also vocal on the cause of these agents.  These Congressman and radio talk show hosts also expressed concern about the prison these conditions these border agents are subjective to.  Senator Cornyn and others were like instrumental in getting one of the imprisoned border agents moved from one prison to one closer to his family. President George H.W. Bush, within 24 hours before his presidency came to an end, commuted the sentences of Ramos and Campean (http://ramos-compean.blogspot.com/).  This is what happens when Congress and the media take stand on an issue. Imagine what could happen if you, Mr. President, said “Enough, we are not going to continue to tolerate innocent men and women being wrongfully convicted and, in some cases, put to death. That is not who we should be as Americans.”

U.N. Rapporteur Philip Alston visited Alabama and Texas because those are the two states with the largest number of people on death row, for Alabama, this represents the number on death row per capita. In his report, he stated that officials in Alabama seemed to be indifferent to evidence of innocence and bias. Specifically, he said the following:

 “In Texas, there is at least significant recognition that reforms are needed. In Alabama, the situation remains highly problematic. Government officials seem strikingly indifferent to the risk of executing innocent people and have a range of standard responses, most of which are characterized by a refusal to engage with the facts. The reality is that the system is simply not designed to turn up cases of innocence, however compelling they might be. It is entirely possible that Alabama has already executed innocent people, but officials would rather deny than confront flaws in the criminal justice system.” (http://eji.org/eji/files/06.30.08%20Alston%20Press%20Statement.pdf)

Rodney K. Stanberry

This issue is very personal to me because I have a cousin who is in his 16th year of a prison sentence for crimes he did not commit. Rodney K. Stanberry was arrested in 1992, tried and convicted in 1995, and began his prison sentence in 1997.  Rodney was convicted solely based on victim eyewitness testimony. He was convicted even as another individual confessed in front of the prosecutor two years before the start of Rodney’s trial that he, not Rodney, was at the victim’s home when she was shot (the jury NEVER heard this confession), even as work documents and the testimony of his supervisor and co-workers placed him at work when the crimes were committed, and even as there was no physical evidence that placed him at the scene of the crime. Rodney also passed a polygraph test. He did everything a law abiding citizen should do in helping law enforcement and in turn, they arrested and accused him of committing what was a violent crime. More information about his case can be found at www.freerodneystanberry.com and www.freerodneystanberry.com/blog.  

You can issue an executive order calling on the Department of Justice to review all cases where a conviction is questionable and set an example for the states- particularly the Attorney Generals and District Attorneys that we, as a country, will leave no stone unturned to ensure that an innocent person is not in prison. We need to discourage the convict at all costs mentality that exists among federal and state prosecutors.  You have the power to make a difference. Do you have the conviction to do so?

Sincerely,

Artemesia Stanberry

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