A Step in the Right Direction- Giving the Wrongfully Convicted a Chance at Justice

 Rodney Stanberry on WKRG- 2004

July 22, 2012

A Step in the Right Direction- Giving the Wrongfully Convicted a Chance at Justice

There are people in prison for crimes they did not commit. That has become a well-known fact, particularly with the advent of DNA testing.  There are many reasons as to why someone may have been wrongfully convicted, but when the state- represented by the Department of Justice and local district attorneys plays a role in these convictions- it is imperative that the state works to correct itself, even if an inmate has exhausted his/her appeals.   This is why I applaud the Department of Justice’s decision to review cases where flawed forensics evidence may have led to a wrongful conviction. From the Washington Post:   

The Justice Department and the FBI have launched a review of thousands of criminal cases to determine whether any defendants were wrongly convicted or deserve a new trial because of flawed forensic evidence, officials said Tuesday.

The undertaking is the largest post-conviction review ever done by the FBI. It will include cases conducted by all FBI Laboratory hair and fiber examiners since at least 1985 and may reach earlier if records are available, people familiar with the process said. Such FBI examinations have taken place in federal and local cases across the country, often in violent crimes, such as rape, murder and robbery.( http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/crime/justice-dept-fbi-to-review-use-of-forensic-evidence-in-thousands-of-cases/2012/07/10/gJQAT6DlbW_story.html)

Regardless of the potential financial cost, this is very necessary, as you can’t put a monetary value on justice. This certainly isn’t to say that everyone or even most of the inmates whose cases will be reviewed will be determined to be innocent, but for those who truly are, this gives them a chance to obtain their freedom.  A Washington Post series published earlier this year 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).   You can read this series to see several questionable cases. One can easily argue that the advocacy and investigative reporting by the press led to this decision by the Department of Justice.  The advocacy of the press (and public) is also needed to help bring about justice in states where many innocent people also languish in prison as a result of a wrongful conviction at the state and local level.

How Many Innocents are in Prison?

This past May I wrote a blog, an open letter, actually, to the President asking him to openly address wrongful convictions. http://freerodneystanberry.com/blog/2012/05/17/an-open-letter-to-president-obama-wrongful-convictions/ In the blog, I stated that 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).

More recently, the Birmingham News editorial board (Birmingham, AL) wrote an editorial entitled   “OUR VIEW: Another reason to be a little less confident about the outcomes at criminal trials: A new study suggests it’s more common than once thought for people to be wrongly convicted of homicide and sexual assault.”  This editorial provides even more grim statistics on the number of innocent people who could be behind bars right now. Citing a Department of Justice funded study conducted by the Urban Institute, the editorial board wrote:  

“Those in the legal profession tell us juries get it right more often than not. And more often than not, they do.

But sometimes, they don’t, a fact driven home in a new study released this week. Specifically, the findings suggest wrongful convictions in cases involving homicide and sexual assault are more common than many assumed. Past estimates were that the rate of wrongful convictions was 3 percent or even less. But in this new study, researchers studying old homicide and sexual assault cases found DNA exonerated a convicted offender 5 percent of the time. When the sexual assault cases were singled out, the DNA tested did not match 8 percent to 15 percent of convicted offenders.” http://blog.al.com/birmingham-news-commentary/2012/06/our_view_another_reason_to_be.html  A 15% chance of being wrongfully convicted, by a jury of your peers! Are these odds that we can be comfortable with? Can we continue to be comfortable with prosecutors responding to cases where there is evidence of wrongful convictions that the jury decided and we can’t be in the position of overturning a jury’s decision. We should fully respect and trust our jury system while also putting mechanisms in place to ensure that in the cases where there was a wrongful conviction, it will be addressed.  This is the step that the DOJ is taking, but states should and must follow suit.  Sitting in prison as an innocent person goes beyond cruel and unusual punishment.  It is mental torture, and it can be, as was the case of Timothy Cole, a college student wrongfully convicted, who died during his 13th year in prison of an asthma attack, a death sentence.  One day is too may, 13 years is torture.  Anthony Graves knows this far too well as during a significant portion of the 18 years he spent in prison was on death row and in solitary confinement and if you have the stomach for it, see and hear what he experienced in his own words-         http://www.democracynow.org/2012/6/22/from_death_row_to_exoneration_fmr

Congress- A Step in the Right Direction

An email from the Innocence Project revealed that Senator John D. Rockefeller (D-WV) and Representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Donna Edwards (D-MD) and Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) introduced a bill in their respective houses of Congress that “will help prevent wrongful convictions by bringing reliable, science-based standards to forensic science (letter sent to subscribers’ inbox from www.innocenceproject.org).  S. 3378 and H.R. 6106 were introduced on July 12th.  As of July 22, 2012, there are no co-sponsors on Sen. Rockefeller’s bill and no additional co-sponsors on the House bill other than the three mentioned.  We should applaud members of Congress for seeing the need to ensure that there is integrity in every conviction, but too often bills are introduced only to die in committee. With the Department of Justice and the FBI’s announcement about reviewing cases, Congress should show support by supporting this legislation and moving it forward.  This is about human lives. In June of this year, the U.S. Senate held what is considered its first hearing on solitary confinement.  Anthony Graves said this to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now following his testimony before the Senate hearing:

Well, you know, the state, they compensated me, but you can never compensate it—compensate me enough for what you stole from me. An apology, it’s never been official, but several people higher up in the government have apologized to me. And I—I mean, you know, I thank them for that, you know, but a true apology would to be—would be to really sit down and analyze our system and realize that we have a big, big problem in our system and that we’re sentencing men to death row and just in prison for crimes that they did not commit, because we have gotten so off track with seeking justice, because we’ve placed the politics over it. And I just wish that, you know, if they’re going to be sincere about an apology, then that would be the way to be sincere about it, is to really take in consideration that our system is definitely broken, and we need to reform it.

We need to fix it, because it’s for all of us. It’s not just for those; it’s for all of us, because the minute you start thinking that it doesn’t affect you, next thing you know, your neighbor is going to jail for something he didn’t do, and you realize that, you know, it’s just right next door to you. When does it come to you next? Then that’s when you start to realize that it’s part of us all, and we all have a part in this. I’m talking about from the voters, you know, and to the judge, to the jury. We all have a part in this here. And if it’s going to work, we all have to play our hand. I mean, the citizens of our nation, we have to hold those that we elect accountable. We definitely have to. We have to start being the overseers, because our system has gotten way off track, and it threatens all of us now. http://www.democracynow.org/2012/6/22/from_death_row_to_exoneration_fmr

Are you comfortable enough to believe that you, a family member, a neighbor, or a distant friend would not be among the 15% of individuals wrongfully convicted due to faulty forensics evidence? And if it happens to you, are you willing to wait on average 13 years- spent in an overcrowded prison with actual criminals- to be exonerated?  This is why it is important for this type of legislation to be supported.   In reading through S. 3378, I discovered that the bill calls for a Forensic Science Advisory Committee.  This committee is a collaborate effort that would include academic scientists, social scientists, statisticians, law enforcement and victim advocate organizations to implement uniform standards and policies to further the goals of the legislation (http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c112:S.3378:) .  You can call your member of Congress in support of this legislation. The number to the Capitol Switchboard is (202) 224-3121. 

Conviction Integrity Units

Dallas County, Texas District Attorney Craig Watkins recognized that people in his county had been wrongfully convicted.  Unlike most District Attorneys, he did not put up a “wall of denial,” rather, he opted to set up a Conviction Integrity Unit where he worked with innocence projects on cases where there was evidence of innocence. The result was a number of exonerations, including that of Cornelius Dupree, who spent 30 years of a 75 year prison sentence in prison for a rape and robbery that he did not commit. If he were in most jurisdictions around this country, he likely would still be in prison. He was given a chance at parole if he admitted guilt and that he was a sex offender. He refused, even knowing he would remain in prison (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/04/cornelius-dupree-jr-prove_n_804010.html.) The leadership and compassion of DA Craig Watkins who wants to put away all the bad people in his county, while also ensuring that the innocent are not serving alongside those people. This should be a model to be followed!  Why isn’t it?  Here is an overview of his Conviction Integrity Unit:

Established by District Attorney Craig Watkins in July of 2007, the Conviction Integrity Unit reviews and re-investigates legitimate post conviction claims of innocence in accordance with the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, Chapter 64 (Motion for Forensic DNA Testing).  In addition, the Conviction Integrity Unit reviews and prosecutes old cases (DNA and non-DNA related) where evidence identifies different or additional perpetrators.  Special Field Bureau Chief Russell Wilson supervises the Conviction Integrity Unit, the Appellate Division, the Public Integrity Division, the Federal Division and the Mental Health Unit, as well as public information, evidence destruction and expunctions at the District Attorney’s Office.  The Conviction Integrity Unit is staffed by two assistant district attorney, one investigator and one legal assistant.  This special division is the first of its kind in the United States. http://dallasda.co/webdev/

It seems that this can be done without an expense to District Attorney Offices.  In 2010, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office created a Conviction Integrity Unit.  From its webpage: 

The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office spares no effort in seeking justice in every case that comes before it.  Through the years and around the country, innocent men and women have been convicted of crimes they did not commit.  This not only robs an innocent person of his or her freedom, it leaves a criminal on the street, free to commit more crimes.

To protect New Yorkers and ensure justice, District Attorney Vance created the Conviction Integrity Program in March 2010.  The Program is comprehensive in scope, and is unique in purpose: not only does it address claims of actual innocence, it also seeks to prevent wrongful convictions from occurring.  The Program has three components: a Conviction Integrity Committee, a Conviction Integrity Chief, and an outside Conviction Integrity Policy Advisory Panel. (http://manhattanda.org/preventing-wrongful-convictions).

One of the cases this unit has before it is the case of Jon Adrian “JJ” Valasquez, whose case was highlighted on Dateline. Luke Russert and NBC spent a decade investigating his case.  Please take a moment to review his case: http://openchannel.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2012/02/10/10374404-conviction-a-reporters-10-year-quest-for-answers-in-a-little-known-murder-case?chromedomain=insidedateline.  I saw the report when it aired and recently watched it again.  It is an even more disturbing case the more one reviews it.  Sadly, as an official stated on the show, that if you think that going to district attorneys with evidence of innocence is going to get someone released, you’re wrong, the system doesn’t work that way. Why doesn’t it?  Why shouldn’t it?  I sent Luke Russert a tweet asking if it generally takes him and NBC a decade to investigate the a case and if there was an update on Valasquez. His response: “@artiestan JJ’s case is still before the wrongful conviction unit of the #NYC DA. Will update story once decision is issued.” This is from June 21, 2012.  I urge you to review Valsquez case and then click on the Manhattan’s District Attorney’s Office to let them know that you are concerned and interested in his case.  If you watch the segment on Dateline, you’ll see an individual the police brought in as a witness saying that he did not know nor see Valasquez at the club where an individual was shot. The witness said he was brought into the police department with heroin on his person, but all the police were concerned with was getting him to id someone, anyone, apparently. So he looked through tons of pictures and finally picked someone, that someone being Valasquez.  This is a case worthy of a serious review! 

Rodney K. Stanberry

Finally, I have a special interest in wrongful convictions because for 16 years, I’ve been advocating for my cousin, Rodney K. Stanberry, who is in his 16th year of a wrongful conviction (www.freerodneystanberry.com). I have asked former Mobile District Attorney John Tyson, Jr. and current Mobile DA Ashley Rich to establish a Conviction Integrity Unit.  While she was running for office, I sent DA Rich, and her opponent, emails about Rodney’s case and asking how they’d address wrongful convictions.  Candidate Rich responded that her office reviews claims of innocence internally, but wouldn’t commit to establishing such a unit. The Mobile District Attorney’s Office has several teams/units, including a check unit team, a child advocacy team, an investigations team, led by Mike Morgan and a White Collar Crime Team, led by Martha Tierney (see this article featuring Rodney K. Stanberry, Mike Morgan is quoted: http://newsone.com/1809115/rodney-k-stanberry-is-alabama-still-the-land-of-jim-crow/).  Although the Mobile District Attorney’s Office has been in a battle with the Mobile County Commission over funding for her office, instituting a Convictions Integrity Team would strengthen the District Attorney’s Office and move District Attorney Rich closer to her campaign vow that there is integrity in every conviction.   You can call or email her office to ask that she looks into Rodney’s case (251) 574-8400 or ashleyrich@mobileda.org.

There are people in prison for crimes they did not commit. Are we comfortable as a society when we hear about people such as Mike Morton (freed and exonerated after spending 25 years in prison), Greg Taylor, free and exonerated after spending 17 years in prison, Darryl Hunt, free and exonerated after spending nearly 19 years in prison, and Timothy Cole (posthumously pardoned- he died in prison). If not, then email your members of Congress, District Attorneys, and state officials asking them to implement reforms. There are tangible and intangible costs to incarcerating the innocent.   


Artemesia Stanberry


PS To hear Candidate Ashley Rich discuss wrongful convictions while he was running to be the District Attorney, u7am0916AshleyRich.

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