Tuesday, October 31, 2006


Australia: Laws that "help" criminals deny justice

A serial drink-driver, again over the limit when he caused a crash that seriously injured a young woman, has walked from court with a $1500 fine because the law does not allow his previous offences to be considered in sentencing. In the District Court yesterday, Judge Gordon Barrett was forced to treat Samuel David Roediger - twice convicted of drink-driving offences in the past - as a first offender because his last conviction was more than five years ago. The case has sparked calls for a review of the laws and the State Government has agreed to look at the issue.

Near Tumby Bay on January 15 last year, Roediger's car crossed over to the wrong side of the road and collided head-on with a vehicle carrying journalists Leisha Petrys and Matthew Clemow, who were returning from the Black Tuesday Eyre Peninsula bushfires. Ms Petrys was seriously injured in the smash. Roediger, 31, was found guilty by a jury of driving under the influence and dangerous driving, but was acquitted of causing bodily injury by dangerous driving. He received a $1500 fine and a 2 1/2 year licence disqualification because his last drink-driving conviction was recorded in 1995. A section of the Road Traffic Act, combined with demerit points legislation, means only offences committed within a five-year "prescribed period" count toward a driver's penalty.

The penalty has infuriated former Sunday Mail journalist Ms Petrys, who spent 1 1/2 hours fully conscious inside the wreck. "It shouldn't matter if you've been caught five years ago or 10 years ago. The fact you've been caught again shows that you haven't learned your lesson," she told The Advertiser. "The law needs to be examined with regard to past misdemeanours. This is a small price for (Roediger) to pay for what I had to go through . . . if he's caught driving without a licence, I will be furious."

In sentencing yesterday, Judge Gordon Barrett said Roediger had been drinking that afternoon. "A blood analysis reading of .128 per cent was recorded when your blood was taken at 11.15pm, some three hours after the accident," he said. "A back calculation depends on when you had your last drink. I am uncertain about that, but the reading is likely to have been somewhere between .08 and .10 percent." That level matched his intoxication at the time of his offences in December 1994 and May 1995. "You have not learnt the lessons of those two court appearances," Judge Barrett said. "Because they are not within five years of the current matter, I have to regard, for the purposes of sentence, the range of penalty applicable to a first offence of driving under the influence of alcohol."

Under Section 47 of the Road Traffic Act, an offender's history can be taken into account, provided it falls within the prescribed period. That period is set at five years so that a driver does not accumulate so many demerits that they are permanently banned from the road.

Judge Barrett said Ms Petrys' injuries "were quite substantial and the effects are long-term". "But I am prevented, by the jury's verdict, from sentencing you on the basis that those injuries were caused by your dangerous driving," he said.

Opposition legal affairs spokeswoman Isobel Redmond said any change to the legislation needed careful consideration. "It's worth reviewing when it leads to an insufficient result, where someone has not learned their lesson," she said. A spokeswoman for Attorney-General Michael Atkinson said the minister would "look into it".

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Monday, October 30, 2006


In Queensland, Australia

The Child Safety Department has apologised to a man for ignoring claims his children were being sexually abused by their mother. Child Safety Minister Desley Boyle said yesterday an independent review of the case had found some evidence of poor practice and gender bias by some child safety officers employed by the former Families Department. The review was ordered in February by former minister Mike Reynolds after concerns about the case were raised by The Courier-Mail.

"This was an extremely complex case, but the review found that one factor was that an officer, through conflicting information, demonstrated bias and that bias then influenced management of the case," Ms Boyle said. "The Child Safety Department director-general, Robin Sullivan, has written to the parent concerned to apologise and I fully support the move. "Since the review the department has taken steps to address the findings and recommendations of the report. "The department is taking all actions available to protect these children and ensure their ongoing safety and wellbeing."

Ms Boyle, who said the workers involved were not employed by the new department, said she could not reveal the full details of the case, to protect the identity of the children, and because the Family Court was also involved. However, the father said three of the children were still with the woman despite the department determining they were at risk of sexual abuse. "I haven't seen them since 2001," he said. "I don't know where they are."

He said two child safety officers had been involved. Departmental documents obtained by The Courier-Mail showed one of the agency's offices recorded it had "concerns pertaining to the future risk of sexual harm of the children" as early as August 2004. But instead of removing the children, that office decided to "attempt to manage the risk". Six months later, child safety officers at another office determined at least one of the children had been sexually abused by their mother.

According to the father, that child now resided with him, but only because the child had refused to return to the mother after a contact visit. Ms Boyle said while the review had criticised the department's performance in the case, child safety officers, who had to make many extremely difficult decisions, generally did a great job. [It sure does not sound like it!]

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Sunday, October 29, 2006


Frank Ostrowski, a yellow envelope of newspaper clippings and his cane resting nearby, jabs his arthritis-twisted fingers in the air as he recounts the perceived slights against him. The police misinterpreted his statements, he insists. His lawyer screwed him over. A key witness double-crossed him, framing him for a drug-related hit he maintains he did not order. "Did I get a fair trial? The answer is no," the 56-year-old convicted killer says in an interview at the minimum-security Rockwood Institution north of Winnipeg.

In Ostrowski's 20 years in prison, the portly, thick-haired inmate has replayed the facts of his case in his head like a worn record whose every groove still obsesses him. But unlike some other lifers, it looks as though Ostrowski may have reason to be obsessed with his innocence. At an ongoing public inquiry into another dubious Manitoba murder conviction, that of James Driskell, evidence has emerged that Ostrowski may indeed have been railroaded.

Memos presented to the Driskell inquiry suggest the chief witness against Ostrowski at the "Rat Trial" of 1987 -- a cocaine mule whose testimony formed the hook on which the Crown hung its case -- received a deal for taking the stand, something he denied under cross-examination. In other words, an inquiry into one possible miscarriage of justice may have uncovered another. "I think it's fair to say on the basis of what we already know that Mr. Ostrowski is the victim of a miscarriage of justice. I'll take it that far," says James Lockyer, a well-known advocate for the wrongfully convicted and counsel to both Driskell and Ostrowski.

He introduced the Ostrowski memos to push the Driskell inquiry to consider a bigger issue: Namely, did police, a Winnipeg prosecutor and his superiors at Manitoba Justice make a habit of concocting secret deals with unsavoury witnesses? And if that is the case, are there others languishing in Canada's penitentiaries who deserve to have their cases re-examined?

Closing arguments in the Driskell inquiry begin Monday and, in his final submission, Mr. Lockyer is expected to repeat a request that the inquiry's commissioner order a review of cases led by the prosecutor in the Driskell case, George Dangerfield. Mr. Dangerfield already has one official wrongful conviction on his resume -- he was the Crown in two of Thomas Sophonow's three trials before DNA tests proved Mr. Sophonow did not kill 16-year-old Barbara Stoppel -- and he prosecuted four other disputed Manitoba murder cases, including Mr. Driskell's and Ostrowski's.

The Driskell and Ostrowski cases are not directly related. But there are similarities. Driskell was convicted of first-degree murder in the 1990 death of his friend Perry Dean Harder. The case was built largely on hair evidence that later proved faulty and on the testimony of a witness named Reath (Ray) Zanidean who, like the key witness in the Ostrowski case, received an undisclosed deal for taking the stand. If the Driskell inquiry's commissioner recommends a review of Mr. Dangerfield's cases, Ostrowski could finally see his case reopened.

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Saturday, October 28, 2006


A young mother was today cleared of the murder of her seriously ill son after being accused of poisoning him with an overdose of table salt. Marianne Williams, 24, wiped away tears as she heard that she had been found not guilty of the murder and manslaughter of 15-month-old Joshua Taylor. Standing outside Winchester Crown Court, she said: "I'm just overwhelmed. It has been a long time coming. "I keep having floods of relief going through me. I can't concentrate or even think about what has happened."

Ms Williams denied poisoning Joshua with a fatal dose of sodium three days before his death on February 27, 2004. Her son was born prematurely in November 2002 and suffered from a range of serious medical problems, including kidney failure.
During the trial the prosecution alleged that Ms Williams, then 21 and on antidepressants at the time, had killed her son because she felt that she could not cope with caring for him. The jury was told that Ms Williams had known of the consequences of her son having too much sodium in his system after he had been taken to hospital suffering from high salt levels in February that year.

The defence said that Joshua had died as a result of a combination of his medical condition and the drugs that he was taking for his care.

Ms Williams, from Wiltshire, was in a long-term relationship with Joshua's father, Paul Taylor, when the child died. She had become pregnant with twins in 2002, but the pregnancy was difficult and one of the twins died in the womb. Joshua was born 12 weeks prematurely by Caesarean section and weighed only 2lb 10oz. He spent much of his life in hospital suffering from a number of medical problems, including very small kidneys. He had to be fed through a tube and was given daily doses of sodium chloride to counterbalance his failing kidneys, which expelled too much sodium. After his death, tests revealed that his body contained 20 times the amount of sodium prescribed to help his kidney problems.

During the trial it was revealed that doctors, led by Dr Rodney Gilbert, gave Joshua drugs to treat him for dehydration, which contained salt. Dr Gilbert admitted failing to do glucose and urine tests and using an equation for adults to calculate what drugs use to reduce the boy's sodium levels. He said that he now understood the equation was not designed for children.

Ms Williams's legal representative Jacqui Cameron said in a statement on her behalf: "Today's verdict means Marianne can go home to her family and begin to rebuild her life.

Detective Inspector Matt Johnson, of Wiltshire Police, said outside court: "The investigation carried out by Wiltshire Police into the sudden death of Joshua Taylor was complex and required sensitivity, thoroughness and, of necessity, detailed liaison with not only medical experts but a number of other agencies including social services. "The decision to bring charges was only taken after lengthy consultation with the Crown Prosecution Service and a meticulous review of all the evidence that was available. "I acknowledge the verdict reached by the jury and would add only that I am satisfied that every possible piece of evidence that could be found was properly presented to the jury in this case."

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Friday, October 27, 2006


Sir Roy Meadow, the paediatrician struck off by the General Medical Council for giving misleading evidence that helped to convict Sally Clark of murdering her two children, was reinstated by the Court of Appeal yesterday. By a majority it backed a High Court ruling that he was not guilty of serious professional misconduct, clearing Sir Roy’s name. But the Appeal Court also ruled that the GMC was right in claiming the right to discipline expert witnesses, so both sides could claim a victory.

Sir Roy, using data from another expert, incorrectly claimed at Mrs Clark’s trial that the odds against two cot deaths in the same family were 73 million-to-one. His evidence formed part of the prosecution case that led to her conviction. But by discrediting it her lawyers were able to obtain an acquittal on appeal. Sir Roy, 73, and now retired, was then struck off by the GMC, but he appealed to the High Court to reverse the decision and and won his case. The court ruled that all expert witnesses should be immune from disciplinary action and that Sir Roy was not guilty of serious professional misconduct and that his striking off should be quashed. The Appeal Court yesterday found for the GMC on the first point, while affirming the lower court’s judgment on the striking off.

Sir Roy said: “I am glad that the Court of Appeal has agreed with the previous High Court judgment that my evidence in the trial of Mrs Clark was not an example of serious professional misconduct, and that the GMC was wrong in its judgment of me.”

Finlay Scott, Chief Executive of the GMC, said: “This appeal was about protecting the public interest. The public must be confident that doctors and other professionals who give evidence in court proceedings can, if necessary, be held to account by their regulator. “We did not accept that the GMC should be prevented from using its statutory powers when we judge it to be necessary, and the Court of Appeal has confirmed that we were correct.” Lawyers for the GMC had argued at a hearing at the Court of Appeal in July that the High Court decision rendered the disciplinary body “toothless” against professionals acting as expert witnesses.

The panel of appeal judges, headed by Sir Anthony Clarke, the Master of the Rolls, were told by Nicola Davies, QC, representing Sir Roy, that as an expert witness he was covered by immunity from any form of action against him over what he said in court. Miss Davies said the GMC’s Fitness to Practise Panel had found that the evidence given by Sir Roy represented his honestly held opinion and there was no question of any failure to use his best endeavours when he gave evidence at the Sally Clark trial. But the panel nevertheless ruled that his conduct was “fundamentally incompatible with what is expected by the public from a registered medical practitioner”.

Sir Roy, a distinguished paediatrician and expert in sudden infant death syndrome, gave evidence in the trials of Sally Clark, Angela Cannings and Donna Anthony, all of whom were jailed for murdering their children but later cleared by the Court of Appeal. In their reserved ruling the appeal judges accepted arguments made by the GMC and the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, who intervened in the case because of the important public policy issue, that there was no such thing as immunity for expert witnesses.

By a majority, the judges dismissed the GMC appeal over serious professional misconduct with Sir Anthony dissenting. Lord Justice Auld said Sir Roy was undoubtedly guilty of some professional misconduct, but said: “I could not contemplate erasure as an appropriate penalty for Professor Meadow’s uncharacteristic honest errors in this difficult case.” Lord Justice Thorpe said: “Professor Meadow’s evidence, flawed though it was, fell far short of serious professional misconduct.”

Christine Tomkins, deputy chief executive of the Medical Defence Union, said: “We are pleased that the Court of Appeal has sided with the High Court in finding Professor Meadow not guilty of serious professional misconduct. She said the MDU, which supported Sir Roy’s court battle, was considering whether to appeal to the House of Lords on the issue of immunity.

The family of Sally Clark said last night: “The Court of Appeal has decided that experts who give flawed evidence should not be immune from disciplinary proceedings by their professional bodies. “Professor Meadow has not been totally vindicated as he is apparently claiming. All three judges found him guilty of professional misconduct. “One positive outcome of this decision is that the large number of parents who have complaints against Professor Meadow pending with the GMC will now be able to be heard.”

Patricia Hamilton, President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said that it welcomed the recommendation for changes to the rules governing the GMC to minimise the risk of witnesses being vexed by “unmeritorious complaints”. She said: “The college will be working with the GMC on this so that paediatricians are not deterred from undertaking responsibilities in safeguarding children.” A spokesman for the Society of Expert Witnesses said:“Unless the justice system deals with the failure to handle conflicting scientific opinion, today’s judgment can only add to the growing exodus of experts prepared to assist tribunals.”

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Thursday, October 26, 2006


A woman accused of trying to murder her baby son will discover tomorrow whether she has won a 12-year legal fight for justice. Regarded as a test case in Scots law, the landmark legal action challenges the controversial theory of Munchausen syndrome by proxy (MSBP), which she believes has resulted in thousands of parents being wrongly accused of child abuse. "My son was only six months old. I'll never forget the day they took him away," said "Judith". "I wrapped him in a blanket, gave him a kiss and handed him over to the social worker. He was three years old by the time we got him back."

She was accused of attempted murder, her two children were taken into care and she launched what was to become a long court battle. Her nightmare began in September 1993, when her son stopped breathing and was rushed to Glasgow's Royal Hospital for Sick Children. Over the next few months, he suffered from vomiting and interrupted breathing. She said he was a victim not of violence, but of problems relating to Cisapride, a drug that has since been withdrawn in the UK.

After her children were placed with foster carers, a family court ruled that "on the balance of probabilities" she was responsible for the attacks. However, no criminal charges were brought and after two years both her son and daughter were returned home. Judith took legal action against the Scottish Children's Reporters Administration (SCRA), the body responsible for placing the children in care. Lawyers for the 42-year-old claim that fresh evidence, not available at the original hearing, will prove that she is innocent. After more than 100 days of evidence and an estimated 1 million pounds of public money, a sheriff will rule tomorrow whether or not Judith is the victim of a miscarriage of justice. A spokeswoman for SCRA refused to comment.

The mother-of-four was linked with the now infamous condition, MSBP - a theory which suggests some parents deliberately harm their children to draw attention to themselves. She says she was labelled with MSBP following the intervention of a number of doctors, including the controversial paediatrician Professor Sir Roy Meadow. He was involved in the prosecution of Sally Clark, who was jailed for murdering her two sons. He said the chances of two children dying of cot death were one in 73 million. She was cleared on appeal. Scotland's leading child-abuse expert, Professor John Stephenson, who is also a proponent of MSBP, is central to Judith's case and gave evidence in the original hearing more than a decade ago. He was called back to give evidence in this latest legal challenge at Glasgow Sheriff Court. He declined to comment on the case yesterday.

Massimo Franchi, the woman's solicitor, said MSBP had left a damaging legacy. "If my client wins, every other case of MSBP could be called into question. There are 30 years of accusations to come out."

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Wednesday, October 25, 2006


One of Linda Lavarch's last acts as attorney-general was to reject a long-standing request to allow the re-testing and analysis of the DNA samples that convicted a man to life imprisonment for the frenzied stabbing murder of "Cat Lady" Kathleen Marshall. The lawyer acting for Andrew Fitzherbert, Laura-Leigh Cameron-Dow, said she would this week ask acting Attorney-General Rod Welford to review the decision because Mrs Lavarch had not properly addressed the detail of the request.

Fitzherbert, who maintained he had never met Marshall, let alone killed her, was the first person in Australia to be convicted solely on DNA evidence. No motive or witnesses were produced in court.

The request to allow Fitzherbert's supporters to pay for a WA laboratory to retest the shoes, rags, bags and other material found at the crime scene at Marshall's Windsor home and veterinary clinic was first made when Mr Welford was attorney-general 2½ years ago.

Mrs Lavarch resigned as attorney-general on October 18, citing depression. In her letter dated October 17, Mrs Lavarch said Fitzherbert's supporters had failed to raise "any justifiable doubt about the correctness of the sampling or testing of the DNA material".

However, Ms Cameron-Dow said Mrs Lavarch's letter missed the point of the request for retesting. "We haven't claimed problems with the testing, what we've claimed is an issue with the analysis. We're querying the statistics based on the data produced, which is a whole different ball game." Ms Cameron-Dow, of Slater & Gordon, said that since lodging the request in February 2004, she had not even been able to ascertain whether the material Fitzherbert seeks to retest still exists.

Marshall was stabbed more than 50 times in the head, face, neck, chest, arms and abdomen sometime between February 25 and March 2, 1998. Forensic scientist Kenneth Cox told Fitzherbert's jury that the chance of the blood coming from anyone other than the palm reader was 14,000,000,000,000,000 or 1.4 multiplied by 10 to the power of 16. However, Ms Cameron-Dow says the DNA interpretations are disputed by Professor Barry Boettcher, who was influential in uncovering problems with evidence in the Azaria Chamberlain murder case. She added there had been improvements in the analysis of DNA data since. "DNA is not the Holy Grail, it's still a matter of interpretation," Ms Cameron-Dow said.

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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Probation is a joke in Britain

One in five of the most high risk and dangerous offenders under supervision in the community broke the terms of their freedom or committed a further serious violent offence, according to figures published yesterday. Overall, the figures show that more than 60 serious offences — defined as murder, attempted murder, rape, arson, manslaugher, kidnap and armed robbery — were carried out by offenders under the supervision of the probation service and other agencies. Eleven of those crimes were carried out by offenders who had been among the 1,278 assessed as the “critical few” and who were judged as having a high risk of harming the public. But the true figure of further serious offending by those subject to Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements (Mappa) is higher, as the Home Office statistics do not include those at the lowest level.

Peter Voisey, 35, convicted on Friday of abducting and raping a six-year-old girl on Tyneside was on the sex offenders register and under a low level of monitoring. Among the 13,783 men and women being monitored in the two highest categories, 61 were charged with a serious further offence in 2005-06, according to the annual Mappa reports published by 42 probation services in England and Wales.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said last night: “The vast majority of serious further offences are actually committed by offenders in the lowest tier. “About 250 people in total are convicted of a serious further offence each year, although that is not included in the statistics.” The figures show that one in five of the 1,278 very high risk offenders broke the terms of a release licence, breached a court order or committed a further serious offence while under supervision. The number of offenders on level two supervision who committed a further serious offence rose by 6.3 per cent from 47 to 50, while those on the highest level of monitoring fell by 65 per cent from 32 to 11. The number on level two supervision who breached the conditions of their release rose by 21 per cent to 1,300, while the number at the highest level of monitoring who broke their licence fell by just over 1 per cent, from 222 to 219.

The overall number of people on the sex offenders register rose by 3 per cent to reach 29,973, and the number of violent and sex offenders under supervision increased to 47,653, a rise of 7 per cent on the previous 12 months. Of these, 1,278 are classified as the “critical few” who are classed as presenting a particularly severe risk to the public.

David Davis, the Shadow Home Secretary, said: “The Government’s primary duty is the protection of its citizens. These figures betray a serious failure by the Government to carry out that duty.” Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrats’ home affairs spokesman, said: “Historically unprecedented levels of reoffending for all crimes are fast becoming the hallmark of this Government.”

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Monday, October 23, 2006

Lying British rape-accuser named at last

But when is she going to be prosecuted?

A woman with a long history of crying rape who sent an innocent man to jail was named in Parliament amid calls for a change in the law. Shannon Taylor was unmasked by a peer who told the House of Lords her lies had put father-of-two Warren Blackwell behind bars for more than three years. Lord Campbell-Savours used Parliamentary privilege to expose her identity and lambast the 'shabby' police investigation that saw Mr Blackwell imprisoned. Legal experts praised his decision to speak out to prevent other men falling victim to fake sex attack allegations.

Mr Blackwell, 36, whose loyal wife Tanya never doubted his innocence, was dramatically cleared at the Appeal Court last month after Miss Taylor's background as a serial fantasist was exposed by a Criminal Cases Review Commission investigation. But although his name was blackened, anonymity laws meant his accuser's was automatically protected, and she became known only as Miss A. Even the appeal judges wanted to name her - but were powerless to do so - to warn other blameless members of the public. The Daily Mail led calls for her identity to be revealed before she put another innocent man through torment.

Yesterday, Lord Campbell-Savours - said to be motivated by 'outrage' at the case - stood up and publicly did so. He asked fellow peers: "Is not the inevitable consequence of the workings of the law, as currently framed, that we will carry on imprisoning innocent people like Warren Blackwell, who was falsely accused by a serial and repeated liar, Shannon Taylor, with a history of false accusations and multiple identities? "As a result of her accusations, he spent three and a half years in prison following a shabby and inadequate police investigation, and was only exonerated when the Criminal Cases Review Commission inquiry cleared him and exposed her history." The Labour peer added: "Shouldn't mature accusers who perjure themselves in rape trials be named and prosecuted for perjury?"

Miss Taylor's own daughter backed the decision to disclose her name, saying: "She is a danger and the public needs to be warned. She needs prosecuting for what she did. She is every man's worst nightmare."

Mr Blackwell's ordeal began when his accuser, now 38, claimed she had been seized with a knife outside a village club early on New Year's Day 1999, taken to an alley and indecently assaulted. She later picked him out of an identity parade and a jury found him guilty, even though there was no forensic evidence against him and he had no previous convictions. Eventually, the case was investigated by the Criminal Cases Review Commission which found that the woman had made up at least seven other fake allegations of sexual and physical assault, including against her own father. She frequently changed her name and police forces did not realise they were dealing with the same woman. Her own mother has described her as "a persistent liar, very manipulative and a bully" who frequently claimed to have been beaten, sexually attacked and raped - all of which were untrue. She has a history of mental illness and self-harm.

The original investigation by Northamptonshire Police was exposed as shoddy, with Mr Blackwell's lawyers claiming that normal safeguards and procedures were completely ignored. He plans to sue.

Yesterday, a friend of 63-year-old Lord Campbell-Savours explained why he decided to speak out. He said: "He named her because he was outraged. He doesn't think it's got anything to do with the issue of rape, he thinks it's an issue of perjury. "This woman made up the story and told lies and he can't see why a person who has perjured themselves should be protected, irrespective of the type of offence. "Sometimes people have to stick their heads above the parapet in cases where the law is clearly an ass and needs to be reformed. "He thinks the law around anonymity, particularly where false accusations have been made, needs to be changed."

Welcoming the development, Mr Blackwell, from Woodford Halse, Northamptonshire, said: "It's absolutely fantastic. I didn't think anybody would have the guts to name her. "This woman needs to be stopped. The fact is, she remains free to carry on crying rape and up till now has been enjoying the full protection of the law. It's absolutely crazy that she could not be named and shamed, because innocent men need to be warned to avoid her like the plague. "Now I hope she will go on to be prosecuted." But she is unlikely to face charges for perjury or perverting justice.

Northamptonshire Police yesterday claimed there was "insufficient evidence", while Crown Prosecution sources have cited her mental illness as a barrier. But Mr Blackwell's barrister Anne Johnson said: "There is a clear public interest in her being prosecuted for perjury or the very least wasting police time. "It's fantastic that somebody of authority has finally come out and named this woman. The issue needs to be aired otherwise nothing will be done."

At Mr Blackwell's appeal last month, Mr Justice Tugendhat admitted that similar tragic cases could follow because of the lies of the 'Miss A', adding that Parliament had not seemed to have considered this possibility when framing the law. Last night the judge said he did not wish to comment on yesterday's twist. In the 1970s, the Daily Mail campaigned for women in sex cases to be granted automatic anonymity, to protect genuine victims of genuine crimes. Although Miss Taylor has now been publicly named, there is nothing to stop her changing her identity yet again. Callers to her most recent address were told by her boyfriend that she no longer lived there.

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Sunday, October 22, 2006

Innocent citizens wrongfully convicted

After winning the Democratic nomination for governor, candidate Jim Davis apologized to two Florida citizens who had served prison time for crimes they did not commit. Davis apologized for not supporting a compensation bill when he was serving in the Legislature. His apology touched on but one of the issues that should be on the public agenda in light of the exonerations of innocent citizens who have been wrongfully convicted.

Those citizens number more than a few. A recent American Bar Association report showed that since 1973, there has been one exoneration for every three executions in Florida. It is time for political leaders to respond with action to the danger of wrongful convictions. We should think closely and carefully about how best to manage our system's imperfections and guard against future wrongful convictions. We can do this by asking four questions:

How can we best identify those who have a bona fide claim to innocence and allow them to demonstrate their innocence? Currently, prisoners petition for the right to have DNA testing performed on evidence that may exonerate them (or, for that matter, incriminate them further). This requires litigation and is, at bottom, a wasteful exercise.
In Virginia, Gov. Mark Warner learned of problems with wrongful convictions and ordered testing of available case-related biological evidence. Five innocent citizens who were unjustly incarcerated were identified; their combined sentences totaled 91 years in prison. This led former FBI Director William Sessions to make the following common-sense observation: "All across the United States . . . they should cough up those evidence lockers, clean them out, test them. So it costs $1,000. So what? If in fact DNA at any time can establish that the person charged is not the correct person, we should pay attention to it."

How should a program to support the claims to innocence be organized and funded? Today, the burden of communicating, screening and analyzing the claims of prisoners to actual innocence is carried almost entirely by the small staff of the Florida Innocence Initiative, a nonprofit corporation that solicits pro bono lawyers to handle the cases once they are screened. Funding comes from foundations and other private donations, without public support - even though the state has a moral obligation to ensure that we are not imprisoning innocent people. Although this work is of substantial benefit to the state - eliminating a number of claims through careful screening, facilitating the pro bono work of volunteer attorneys, and ultimately freeing the state from the costs of imprisoning citizens who should not be in prison - there has been no state support for the Florida Innocence Initiative.

How should those who are exonerated be compensated? Virtually everyone would agree that the state owes compensation to a citizen who has been wrongfully deprived of his liberty. Since Florida is committed to the payment of full and fair compensation for the taking of property, there is no principled argument for denial of full compensation when the state takes away an innocent citizen's liberty.

The most important issue is the fourth: How can we learn from these exonerations in order to improve the truth-finding function of our justice system? Barry Scheck, one of the leading authorities on wrongful conviction, poses an important question: Just as society requires a careful investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board whenever there is a train wreck or plane crash, isn't it logical that we should investigate each of the cases where we know that the justice system got it wrong?

We should investigate wrongful convictions for the same reasons that we investigate transportation accidents: We don't want to see them happen again. When we look at the failures to arrive at the truth, we have the opportunity to examine all the steps along the way and to enact legal reforms, establish educational programs or institute disciplinary action as may be indicated.

The North Carolina Actual Innocence Commission is an excellent model. Established by the chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court in 2002, it is tasked with “[making] recommendations which reduce or eliminate the possibility of the wrongful conviction of an innocent person.” Like North Carolina, Florida could easily set up an inexpensive commission made up of a cross section of citizens, including law enforcement officials, which could obtain competent assistance with a relatively small expenditure. Perhaps candidates for public office, particularly for governor and attorney general and regardless of partisan loyalties, will be stirred to remedy the danger of wrongful convictions that we've neglected for so long. After all, by neglecting our mistakes, we are sentencing ourselves to repeat them.

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Saturday, October 21, 2006


This week Tim and Gina Williams, a Welsh couple, were reunited with their three children. Social workers had whisked them into care two years ago in the wholly erroneous belief that Mr Williams was a paedophile. He had made the fatal mistake of calling social services about an 11-year-old boy he had found half-naked with his daughter. But the tables quickly turned. A doctor claimed to have found evidence of sexual abuse, social workers jumped to conclusions, and the Williamses were prevented from seeing their children except for an hour and a half twice a week. They said that their children never understood what was happening. They thought their parents did not want them. Imagine it, and weep.

The Williamses were saved because an American doctor testified that there was not a shred of evidence of abuse. In a searing judgment, Judge Crispin Masterman has ruled that the children should never have been removed. He criticised social workers for failing to follow the most basic procedures. Yet the doctor and the social workers remain anonymous.

Newport City Council, named as the local authority, has promised a review. This is unusual. In many such cases, even local councillors do not know when their own staff perpetrate miscarriages of justice. In March Mr Justice McFarlane publicly castigated social workers who had removed a nine-year-old girl from her parents for 14 months on the absolutely false pretext that her mother might be suffering from Munchausen's syndrome by proxy (MSbP). The judge found that every one of the 13 assertions made by the social services team leader was "misleading or incomplete or wrong".

But guess what? We will never know who the team leader is. The Tory MP and ex-council leader Sir Paul Beresford, who has called for those involved to be named, has been unable even to find out which local authority was involved. I have a good idea which one it is. But I am willing to bet that even the leader of that council does not know. I am also willing to bet that none of the people involved has even been disciplined.

This is a racket. All other public servants are held accountable for their mistakes. John Hemming, the Liberal Democrat MP, puts it this way: "In a criminal case, where someone can be given a life sentence, police officers are quoted by name as they give evidence. There is no justification for professionals being anonymous when a parent is given an effective life sentence [by losing their child]."

If we do not know their identities, we also cannot tell whether the same people have given misleading evidence in other cases. If the McFarlane case social workers thought they saw MSbP in a woman whose only crime was to have taken her daughter to hospital for stomach pain (I kid you not), how many other times were they visited by similarly delusional visions?

Did Gordon Oliver, the social worker recently jailed for sexually assaulting children over a period of 20 years, ever give evidence in court? What about Martin Thei, the Essex County Council worker who killed himself five years ago after being arrested by police for downloading child porn? One campaign group claims that Thei made many reports that resulted in children being taken into care and/or adopted. The council says that is unlikely but it is not absolutely sure. I have talked to one family in whose case Thei's report was crucial. This has never been reviewed.

The number of calls I receive from parents, some who have lost their children for ever and some who have got them back after dreadful battles, makes me increasingly concerned that social workers and experts are manufacturing evidence; that they are concentrated in certain parts of the country; and that they cover up for each other, because they are convinced that they are right. We are living in a hell of good intentions. We can only root out the bad apples if we can see how they infect the picture.

Anonymity clouds every attempt at justice. Two years ago, after Angela Cannings was cleared of killing her babies, Margaret Hodge, then Children's Minister, announced a review of certain cases where children had been taken into care. But her "review" consisted of asking the same old people in the same old local authorities to question their own original judgments. Only one case was subsequently overturned. That tells us nothing, because Hodge failed utterly to grasp the opportunity to monitor specific councils and witnesses and to see whether there were patterns to their behaviour.

Today, once again, we are in danger of missing an opportunity. For the Government's otherwise excellent consultation on opening up the family courts barely touches on this issue. It concentrates on the anonymity of children and families, and says virtually nothing about the anonymity of professionals. Making more judgments public, as the Government proposes, would clearly be a great step forward. But if we simply get anonymised judgments, such as that of McFarlane, we are not much farther forward in holding fraudsters to account.

Judges currently decide whether to make their judgments public, and whether to name professionals. Very few do, despite guidance from the Court of Appeal (in the McFarlane case, the court even kept secret the identity of the defence counsel). I have no desire to perpetrate witch-hunts: each witness could be given an identity code, if that was felt absolutely necessary to protect their identities, but that would at least enable those of us who want to see justice done track their record.

The debate about child protection and anonymity is always couched in terms of the interests of the child. Those who work in this field have come to believe that a child's privacy is somehow synonymous with their own. But if some people do not understand what real evidence is, should they not be accountable? The oldest law of bureaucracies is "first protect ourselves". How many more cases do there have to be before someone finally kicks down their hiding place?

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Friday, October 20, 2006


A Brisbane grandmother pushed to the ground and knocked unconscious had just told a man to "piss off" after taking a car park he was waiting for, a Brisbane court was told yesterday. Robert James Kenyon, 54, of Windsor, pleaded guilty in the Brisbane District Court to seriously assaulting Patricia May White, 80, at the Chermside Shopping Centre on June 18.

Crown Prosecutor David Nardone said Kenyon and his family had been waiting for a park, when White apparently pulled in ahead of him. The court heard Kenyon confronted White, saying: "That's my parking bay. I just want my parking bay." She stepped away but, when he continued to remonstrate, she said: "If you are that upset mate, get the police or piss off."

Mr Nardone said when White brushed past, Kenyon pushed her shoulder – causing her to fall face-first on the concrete and lose consciousness. The court was told White – who has arthritis and walks with a cane – was taken to hospital, where she was treated for two black eyes, nose fractures, bruised ribs and various cuts.

Mr Nardone said the elderly deserved to be treated with the highest respect and courtesy by the community, and submitted a wholly suspended jail term and substantial fine would be in range. Defence barrister Liz Wilson said her client was extremely remorseful and ashamed of his conduct, and had made every effort to make amends. The court heard an early offer made by Kenyon through his solicitors to pay all expenses incurred by White in the incident was rebuffed. Ms Wilson said Kenyon regularly saw a psychologist for counselling, anger management and coping techniques, and was being treated for depression and anxiety. She said Kenyon did not expect White to fall, but rather to turn back and continue their argument. His wife immediately went to the victim's aid, while he waited in the car for police to arrive. "This is not a case of gratuitous violence, it's not a case of premeditated violence. It's not a case of a youth taking advantage of an older person."

Judge Hugh Botting said there was significant public concern about road rage incidents, but he accepted Kenyon did not intend to harm White. He sentenced Kenyon to six months' jail, wholly suspended for 12 months. Outside court, White refused to speak with waiting media and at one stage, forcefully grabbed one reporter's arm and refused to let go. It is believed she has an agreement with Today Tonight to tell her story.

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Thursday, October 19, 2006

Innocent man suffers but crooked British police unrepentant

A man who spent 11 years in jail for a murder he did not commit has told how teenage rebellion got him into more trouble than he ever imagined. Michael O'Brien was 19 and working as a painter and decorator in Cardiff when he agreed to go "joy-riding" for the first time to be "one of the boys". But on the same night, Cardiff newsagent Phillip Saunders was ambushed and beaten as he returned home. Mr O'Brien and two other men were convicted and jailed for his murder.

Mr O'Brien has said his wrongful conviction for the 52-year-old newsagent's murder changed him forever. "On the night in question, that's what we were doing, trying to steal a car for joyriding purposes," Mr O'Brien explained. "I'd never done this before, but nevertheless I wanted to be one of the boys, so I went along with them. "Looking back on it, I was stupid...I've always felt a bit of an outcast, I just feel different in a sense to other people. "I was Mr Goody-two shoes, I never did anything wrong, it was a bit of a rebellion."

Mr O'Brien said his arrest left him "stunned" and shaken. "I allowed myself to be carried in a stolen vehicle...I was guilty of that," he said. "I was more worried about getting done for the car, because I knew I hadn't done the murder. "I just thought the police wouldn't charge innocent people. I was very naive in that sense, I thought only guilty people went to prison. "I had to face the harsh realities that everything I believed in was just caving in around me."

In 1988, aged 20, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life-imprisonment alongside Darren Hall and Ellis Sherwood, both 19. Before the trial, Mr O'Brien's daughter died of cot death. He said he was left "devastated" and in "no fit state" to defend himself. He said the guilty verdict left him suicidal. "I was so traumatised. I wanted to die, I wanted to commit suicide," he said.

The three men, who became known as the Cardiff Newsagent Three, were eventually cleared by appeal court judges in 1999.

But during the 11 years he spent in jail, Mr O'Brien said his family was "ripped apart". He said: "It put me on a downward spiral...it devastated me. "I lost everything I had in my family unit...all that was diminished." He added: "I had to come to terms with my daughter's death, I had to come to terms with being wrongly convicted and I didn't know how to go about it. I turned to drink, drugs."

The turning point came in 1990, when he met other prisoners, who spurred him on to fight for justice. "I started getting stronger and decided to fight back... and that's when I started studying law in prison," he said.

Since his release Mr O'Brien has become a campaigner against miscarriages of justice. In 2001, he launched the Miscarriages of Justice Organisation (Mojo) at the House of Commons alongside Paddy Joe Hill - one of the Birmingham Six. But he says his time in prison has left him a "different person" . He said: "I missed seeing my son grow up...I missed out on a lot of my youth which I can't get back. "I've lost out on so much in just life in general, just doing everyday things.

"The positives are I fought my way out of prison because I studied law, I've made a number of legal landmark rulings in the courts, my name is in a number of law books for setting a legacy. "I'm also helping other innocent people which has got to be a good thing. "If I can stop one innocent person going to prison I feel all of this would have been worthwhile."

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Police are to pay 500,000 pounds in damages to two men who served more than a decade in prison after officers allegedly framed them for a murder they did not commit, the Guardian has learned. Two of the so-called Cardiff Three - who were convicted and jailed for the 1987 murder of a newsagent - sued South Wales police, alleging officers had fabricated evidence against them and suppressed material that may have exonerated them.

The force has now agreed to the payouts for false imprisonment and malicious prosecution, which are believed to be the highest of their kind. Michael O'Brien received 300,000 and Ellis Sherwood 200,000. Mr O'Brien will also receive 480,000 from the Home Office for lost earnings and for the lost decade of his life, taking his total compensation to 780,000.

South Wales police is not planning to apologise or take disciplinary action against any of the 40 officers it says were involved in the case. Furthermore, despite more than 1 million pounds being paid out in compensation to two of the men for their ordeal, the force says it does not accept liability or any wrongdoing.

On October 12 1987 newsagent Philip Saunders, 52, was viciously battered with a spade outside his Cardiff home. The day's takings from his kiosk had been stolen, and five days later he died of his injuries. The murder sparked a massive police hunt and 42 people were questioned including Mr O'Brien, Mr Sherwood and another man, Darren Hall. No forensic evidence linked them to the crime and they initially denied any involvement. Eventually Mr Hall gave a statement saying he had acted as the look-out man and that Mr O'Brien had held Mr Saunders down while he was hit. His statements to the police were rambling and often incoherent. At one stage, he said: "It's all bullshit".

According to court documents outlining Mr O'Brien's case against South Wales police, officers used Mr Hall's "vulnerability and malleability to secure a confession. "They then dishonestly concocted and manipulated evidence in support of it against those he had named ... without regard to or concern for the truth of the same and out of a desire to obtain a conviction at all costs." The men's murder convictions were quashed by the appeal court in 2000. In the case settled this week, lawyers said officers had "deliberately fabricated accounts of incriminating statements" against Mr O'Brien.

In a witness statement to the court, Mr O'Brien said: "I cannot begin to explain how I felt being sent to prison for a murder I knew I had not committed. "It is very important for me to prove that my prosecution and conviction was not just an accident due to Darren Hall's strange personality but was the result of misconduct by police officers. I have a deep need for misconduct to be uncovered in public so that the officers will not 'get away with it' and everyone will know what really happened. "This includes loss of liberty for 11 years 43 days and all the other hardships which arose from it including damage to my reputation through being branded a murderer and effects on my family life including divorce, separation from my son throughout most of his childhood, being in custody during the deaths of my daughter and my father and having to attend their funerals in handcuffs and effects on my relationships with other family members."

Recalling his repeated questioning by police Mr O'Brien said: "When I was in the corridor I would be handcuffed to a radiator at the bottom of the radiator so that I had to sit on the floor, I couldn't get up. The radiator was very hot. I asked officers if I could have a solicitor a few times but this was refused. I remember on one occasion an officer saying 'well you're not fucking having one, it's as simple as that.'" He says he was taunted by police about an indecent assault he had suffered aged 17, when he was attacked by an older man, with one of the officers saying, "you enjoyed it didn't you?"

Mr O'Brien was 20 when he was arrested and says he is still suffering 19 years later: "Over the years I spent in prison I felt extremely depressed, suicidal at times. I also became very angry. "I suffered from nightmares and was afraid to go out alone. I had panic attacks ... I found it very difficult to relate to my family and to my son after such a long separation." Mr O'Brien's solicitor, Sara Riccah, said: "It is an absolute disgrace that Michael has not received an apology from South Wales police for all that he has suffered - and that, despite the massive sum Michael has received in compensation, not a single officer has faced disciplinary, let alone criminal charges."

In a statement David Francis, deputy chief constable of South Wales police, said: "We have consistently maintained our position that the officers who worked on the investigation into the murder of Philip Saunders did so in good faith and the force was not liable for malicious prosecution or misfeasance. "Therefore, in accordance with counsel's advice, payment into court have been made in full and final settlement of the claims of Mr O'Brien and Mr Sherwood, without an apology. "It is emphasised that this has been done without any admission of liability and in full and final settlement. Mr O'Brien and Mr Sherwood have chosen to accept the payments on that basis rather than going to trial."

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Man who was cleared of rape by DNA evidence awarded $9 million

That should be enough money to make someone in authority think about reining in the crooked cops of Illinois

CHICAGO: A federal jury today awarded a 33-year-old man who spent four years in prison for a rape he didn't commit more than nine million dollars. Alejandro Dominguez was convicted of a 1989 home invasion and rape in Waukegan when he was 16 years old. But in August 2005 he was pardoned by the governor and his record was officially cleared because D-N-A evidence showed he wasn't the rapist.

During the two-week trial, Dominguez's lawyer, Jon Loevy, said that Waukegan police violated his client's due process rights to a fair trial. Loevy says police pushed the victim to pick Dominguez out of a one-person lineup. Because of the wrongful conviction, Dominguez had difficulty finding employment, had trouble with his immigration status and was forced to register as a sex offender.

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In 1990, Alejandro Dominguez, then a 16 year-old Mexican national, was convicted and sentenced to 9 years in prison for the rape of a white woman in Illinois.

Dominquez's conviction was based primarily on the victim's identification. The eyewitness identification procedure employed by the investigators was biased and highly suggestive. On cross examination, the victim testified that the lead detective had singled out Dominguez during the lineup and asked the victim if he was "the one." She concurred. This identification was also undermined by the victim's own disregarded testimony in which her description of the attacker did not match Dominguez. She told police that her attacker wore a diamond earring and had a tattoo, but Dominquez had neither a pierced ear nor any tattoos. She also said that he spoke to her in English, but Dominquez only spoke Spanish.

Forensics also played a part in Dominguez's conviction. William Wilson, a forensic serologist from Northern Illinois Crime Laboratory, testified that serological testing on semen recovered from the victim could not exclude Dominguez. The fact that 67% of the population could not be excluded was not discussed or volunteered.

Dominguez served four years of a nine year sentence. After Immigration and Naturalization Service threatened to deport him for failing to register his conviction in 2001, he sought DNA testing, at his own expense, to prove his innocence. Dominguez was officially exonerated on April 26, 2002, after DNA testing proved that he could not have deposited the semen left by the perpetrator.

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Tuesday, October 17, 2006


During the dozen years her brother was behind bars for a brutal murder he didn't commit, Annette Hudson steadfastly defended him to her neighbors. "They'd say, 'Annette you can't help what you're brother did.' And I would always reply, 'But he didn't do it.'" She was proven right when her brother, Ron Williamson, and a second man, Dennis Fritz, were exonerated by DNA evidence and freed from prison, a tale that forms the basis of new books by Fritz and best-selling author John Grisham.

"What I'm so happy about is that the city of Ada is going to hear my side of the story, what I feel about the district attorney and the police department," said Hudson, who left Ada after her brother's release from prison and now lives in Tulsa. "I have to live with it every day that my brother was wrongfully convicted. I think they did him wrong."

Grisham's first nonfiction book, "The Innocent Man," and Fritz's "Journey Toward Justice" chronicle the 1982 murder of 21-year-old Deborah Sue Carter, the 1987 arrests of Williamson and Fritz, their conviction a year later on first-degree murder charges and how they endured 12 years imprisoned.

"It was like being in a tomb. There were no windows," said Fritz, now 57 and living in Kansas City, Mo. Fritz, wrongly linked to the killing because he was Williamson's friend, was held in isolation for six months in a cell whose main features were a bare light bulb, a smoke-stained plastic mirror and a mattress he described as paper thin. "I would get night and day mixed up," Fritz said. "If I had committed the crime, I could give reason for the time that I was doing. But the justification was not there. ... It just gnaws at you every day to let go of the rope. I was just stubborn."

Williamson, who struggled with mental illness as an adult and was diagnosed bipolar, was particularly troubled during his trial and confinement and would lie awake at night screaming his innocence. "Bloodcurdling screams all through the night," Fritz said. "He would ... scream, and say, 'I'm innocent' over and over and over."

Fritz, a former science teacher and coach, was sentenced to life in prison. Williamson, a second-round draft choice for the Oakland Athletics in 1971, was sentenced to death and was just five days away from his execution when U.S. District Judge Frank Seay, shocked by due process violations that led to his conviction, granted a stay.

DNA tests sought by The Innocence Project, a legal group that uses DNA to exonerate convicts, concluded that forensic evidence from the murder scene, including semen and hair samples, did not match Williamson or Fritz. They were released from prison in 1999 and filed a federal lawsuit against the state a year later that led to a multimillion-dollar settlement in 2003.

Williamson drank heavily following his release from prison and died of cirrhosis of the liver in 2004 at the age of 51. "Just too much agony and pain for him. Ronny relived that nightmare probably a thousand times more than I would allow myself to do," Fritz said. "He just wanted out of this world."

Glen Gore, who knew Williamson, gave authorities a statement that linked Williamson to Carter's death and testified against Fritz. Gore was later convicted of her murder and sentenced to life in prison earlier this year. Gore's 2003 conviction in the case had been overturned.

Ada, located 80 miles southeast of Oklahoma City, is a bustling town of about 16,000 residents that is home to East Central University. The school's 4,500 students, drawn from throughout southern and southeastern Oklahoma, help fuel the city's flourishing commerce and give Ada an energy that is rare for rural Oklahoma. "At one time, there was a lot of money there with oil. It just became corrupted," Fritz said. "The Police Department, their badges and their positions just went to their head."

Carter had been dead longer than she lived when Gore was finally brought to trial and the gory details of her death were resurrected, said former Oklahoma County Assistant District Attorney Richard Wintory, who prosecuted Gore at each of his trials. Evidence indicated that Gore, who knew Carter from her job as a cocktail waitress at the Coachlight lounge, raped and severely beat her before jamming a sock in her mouth to keep her from screaming, and strangled her by wrapping an electrical cord around her neck. Gore came on to her at the Coachlight that night, and witnesses saw her push him away from her car afterward, Wintory said. Later, Gore was dropped off by a friend near Carter's apartment and he talked his way through her door. After Carter's murder, Gore staged the crime scene to look like someone else had broken in and killed her, Wintory said.

Investigators went after Williamson and Fritz, and suppressed evidence that demonstrated their innocence, Wintory said. "Glen Gore conned them," said Wintory, now a deputy district attorney in Tucson, Ariz. "Dennis Fritz and Ron Williamson had ... absolutely nothing to do with the murder of Deborah Sue Carter." Neither Williamson nor Fritz were with Gore on the night Carter was killed and neither had ever met Carter.

Hudson said Grisham did "an excellent job" capturing her brother's character as well as his flaws - including allegations of violent sexual assault in earlier cases in which he was tried twice for rape but never convicted. She said her brother "was a miserable, tormented, pitiful person. It just broke my heart."

Grisham dedicated his book to Hudson and Williamson's other sister, Renee Simmons.

Fritz's book, published by Seven Locks Press of Santa Ana, Calif., is a first-person account that examines the many mistakes and deceptions that led to his conviction and 12-year incarceration. He said it is a "companion book" to Grisham's and that he was encouraged to write it by Grisham, who endorses it as "compelling and fascinating" on the book's cover. "The main thread of the book is the total amount of injustice that I received," Fritz said. Police and prosecutors were under intense pressure to solve the case when they arrested Fritz and Williamson five years after Carter's murder, he said.

Pontotoc County District Attorney Bill Peterson, who prosecuted Williamson and Fritz and is still the county's top prosecutor, said he presented jurors with what he thought at the time were "two fairly strong cases" and was "just stunned" when DNA testing proved their innocence. "What can you say? Our criminal justice system is not perfect. What happened is an aberration," said Peterson, who was not aware at the time of the arrests and trial of problems with the police investigation that were later revealed by the federal lawsuit. "Evidently, there were some reports that never made it to me. It may have made a difference in my charging decision."

Carter's mother and other relatives also feel a sense of injustice after sitting through two trials believing Williamson and Fritz were guilty. "I just despised those two men for years. It really bothers me," said Peggy Sanders, the victim's mother. "I blame our DA for so much." She said she spoke to Williamson several times before his death and still communicates with Fritz. "It's been important for us to hear from Ron and Dennis. It's healing," Sanders said.

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Monday, October 16, 2006

A community shakedown against a big company

On Valentine's Day 2005, a civil trial opened in Crystal City, Texas, that would become notorious in the legal community but receive scant attention outside the state. Rosanna Garcia et al versus Ford Motor Company et al, Cause No. 03-06-10755-ZCVAJA, matched an impoverished, closely knit community of 8,000 against a corporate mammoth, Ford Motor Company, the nation's No. 2 automaker. The trial should have been about drunken driving, high speed and the tragic traffic deaths of two teen-agers. It should have been held under a different judge in another venue. Instead, allegations of improper conduct by officers of the court focused the proceedings on purported shenanigans to deliver millions of dollars to a prominent local family and its attorneys.

The allegations included tales of jury tampering, collusion and witness intimidation. Ford attorneys would call the trial "one of the most bizarre legal proceedings in recent history." Yet, these reports were never publicly investigated by state police, the State Bar of Texas or the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct. The trial ended with the largest non-economic damages ever awarded in Texas to a parent for the wrongful death of a child. The total judgment by the jury was $31 million. The case was later settled for an undisclosed amount, although elements of the lawsuit are still pending.

Drinking and Driving

Crystal City is a farming town located between San Antonio and Mexico. It was the site of a World War II internment camp and a seminal 1967 boycott by Mexican-American students forbidden to speak Spanish in public schools. On a lighter note, the town is known as "the spinach capital of the world" and the town square features a larger-than-life statue of Popeye the Sailorman representing the area's spinach growers and migrant workers.

The event that gave rise to Rosanna Garcia v. Ford was a fatal traffic accident that occurred on May 31, 2003. Road deaths are not unusual in South Texas, where highways wind through vegetable fields and rural brush country. These highways are mostly two-lane and unlighted, although well-maintained. They are often empty at night. The nearest town is likely to be 30 or 40 miles away. An illicit South Texas tradition, especially for young people around graduation time, is drinking and driving in pickup trucks and SUVs at night on these highways at high speeds, with frequent disregard for wearing seat belts. That was the case on the night of May 31, 2003, when two young men and two young women - all 19 years old - were returning to Crystal City after a night of partying.

Saul Guerrero Jr. was driving the 2000 Ford Explorer SUV. Corina Garcia - Cori to friends and family - was sitting in the passenger seat. Behind them were Arturo Guerrero, Saul's cousin, and Diana Alonzo. Later blood tests revealed that Saul Guerrero had an alcohol level much too high to have been driving legally. At one point, the paved road turns sharply to the left. It is marked by a warning sign at 500 feet before the approach. If a driver misses the curve and proceeds straight ahead, the roadway turns to unpaved gravel and caliche.

Accident investigators concluded that Saul Guerrero made no attempt to turn or slow down at the turn. When his 2000 Ford Explorer hit the gravel, the vehicle began to skid. Guerrero lost control and the Explorer went into a ditch, rolling over two or three times and ejecting all the occupants through the side windows. All four doors remained closed. Cori and Diana were killed. Saul and Arturo were injured but conscious. They could not find the two women, and Saul carried Arturo two miles looking for help before the two collapsed. Three hours later, about dawn, the men were found and directed rescuers to the accident site.

The death of Cori Garcia was especially poignant. Cori, who was starting college, was related to two prominent Zavala County families. She was the granddaughter of District Judge Ray Perez, a beloved political figure in the area who had retired from his state bench two years earlier but continued to hear cases as a visiting judge. The young college student also was the niece by marriage of Diana Palacios, the city manager and political matriarch of Crystal City, one of seven near-legendary local sisters. In South Texas, where residents still keep copies of Mexico land grants passed down from great-grandparents, lineage and family are important. Palacios, a well-connected political and social insider, would be a key player in the events that followed.

Two Dozen Red Roses

A month after the accident, with funerals over, the first stirrings of the civil case that would become Rosanna Garcia v. Ford began in Zavala County. The families of the two young men involved in the accident - Saul Guerrero Jr., the driver, and his cousin, Arturo Guerrero - were approached by Diana Palacios and by South Texas attorney Jesse Gamez about representation in a civil lawsuit against Ford. While lay persons might think the fatal accident was the fault of the driver, neither Saul Guerrero Jr. nor his family had much in the way of assets. They were, in the jargon of personal injury attorneys, "judgment-proof." If the civil lawsuit were to "have legs," as the saying goes, it needed a "deep pockets" defendant. So the lawsuit contemplated by the four families would blame Ford.

Palacios and Gamez were perfect solicitors to approach these families. Gamez is a native son who has practiced law in the area for 30 years and maintains offices in San Antonio and Crystal City. Palacios, in addition to being the aunt of victim Cori Garcia, was also Gamez's longtime lover and business associate. She has on occasion acted as his legal assistant. Both were hometown success stories. Their families had been acquainted for three generations. Although Gamez repeatedly ducked questions about his love affair with Palacios under oath in the Ford trial, he seemed proud of his relationship with the city manager. When an attorney for Ford asked Gamez about his romance with Palacios, Gamez replied that he would not call it "intimate." The attorney then asked, "Did you give her two dozen roses Valentine's Day?" "Two dozen red roses," Gamez corrected him (emphasis added). The lawyer spent many weekends entertaining Palacios in Crystal City, "showing her off to folks," in the words of Palacios' political rival, former Mayor Frank Moreno.....

Shortly thereafter, on July 2, 2003, the first petition in the lawsuit that became Rosanna Garcia v. Ford was filed. The lawsuit also blamed Saul Guerrero Jr., the driver, for the accident. He was sued along with Ford in a move that kept the lawsuit in friendly Crystal City. This was a twist that shocked the Guerrero family. Attorney Jesse Gamez had ended up suing his own client, a key ingredient in the allegations of collusion charging that "the integrity of the process was compromised." Millions of dollars were at stake. Crystal City buzzed with news of the upcoming trial.....

As the lawsuit matured, and the trial date of Valentine's Day 2005 approached, Palacios would begin to play her most controversial role. She was chosen for the prospective jury panel. Gamez's gift of roses was made the day jury selection in the Ford trial began, a day that Gamez also took Palacios to lunch and talked to her by phone more than a dozen times. When questioning of the prospective jurors began, Palacios said not a word about her relationships with the plaintiffs, the families of the victims or the attorneys when jurors were polled about whether they could be fair and impartial. Palacios would be picked to serve on the jury, even though presiding Judge Amado Abascal and lawyers for the plaintiffs including Gamez knew about her relationships with the victims and with Gamez. Ford's attorneys would later call the case "the embodiment of incurable juror bias." ....

For three decades, South Texas has earned a reputation friendly to plaintiffs' lawyers. The nation's first $100 million personal injury verdict came from nearby Eagle Pass in the 1974 explosion of a propane truck that killed 17. The public school strike that began in 1967 is as well-known to Texas Latinos as Little Rock is to African-Americans. La Raza Unida, the political party, even succeeded in placing a candidate for governor on the 1972 Texas ballot. That generation's children now run Crystal City. Diana Palacios, for example, was a high school cheerleader and a protestor during the school strike.....

While best known in Duval County, the patron system extended through all the counties of South Texas including Zavala. As the 20th Century came to a close and Republicans began to take over state government in Texas, Anglo political bosses were replaced by Hispanics. That was the case in Crystal City. Diana Palacios had come up through that system. "I think people are scared (of her)," said former Mayor Frank Moreno. "Everybody who works for a public entity is afraid they'll lose their jobs" if they oppose her. "Gamez puts up lots of campaign money," Moreno added, explaining the political workings of Crystal City. "He wines and dines local folks in San Antonio, takes them to Spurs games." ....

For Gamez and Palacios and the victims' families, the suit against Ford that began on Valentine's Day could result in a monetary jackpot. But first, the plaintiffs needed their Popeye, their larger-than-life combatant. They found their man in Mikal Watts of Corpus Christi. Watts is the latest incarnation of the Texas gunslinger-litigator. He was only 38 years old (he turned 40 on July 17) when the Ford trial began, but he already carried a portfolio heavy with press clippings.....

The trial was held in the Crystal City courtroom of 365th District Judge Amado Abascal III, whose district covers three counties including Zavala in South Texas. Although he may not have known it at the time of trial, Abascal was under federal investigation as part of a probe of alleged financial misdeeds at the Kickapoo tribe's Lucky Eagle casino outside Eagle Pass. The investigation had yielded numerous indictments, and Abascal was caught up in its wake for allegedly accepting $15,000 from the casino manager and falsely reporting it as political contributions on his election campaign report. He was eventually indicted on Oct. 28, 2005, after the Ford verdict had gone to an appellate court, was suspended from his bench by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct and is awaiting trial.

If Abascal were aware of the probe, he may have been thumbing his nose at the judicial establishment with some of his actions in the Ford trial. The judge and his attorney, Roy Minton of Austin, have argued the indictment was at most a paperwork violation. Crystal City voters seemed to agree when they re-elected Abascal to his bench in the 2006 primary.

Abascal had held his bench for 16 years at the time of the trial, and for three decades has been an intimate player in the South Texas political scene. Two district judges have jurisdiction in Zavala County, and Abascal's "partner" on the other bench was until recently Judge Ray Perez, the grandfather of victim Cori Garcia. Nevertheless, Abascal declined to recuse himself. When the prospective jurors including Palacios were questioned by the lawyers, only one man mentioned knowing the parties or the attorneys in the case; he was excused. Palacios remained silent. It was not just Palacios and the plaintiffs' attorneys who should have spoken up. Judge Abascal, too, was arguably obliged as an officer of the court to have revealed Palacios' omission of the truth. Several sections of Vernon's Texas Statutes and Codes deal with conflicts of interest and the obligation of lawyers, including judges, to practice "candor" toward the court. "The judge knew the Garcia and the Perez families," juror Juanita Alcala said in an August 2005 interview with CFIF. "I didn't think this was a fair trial. I was surprised they had it here."

To a layman, the deaths of Cori Garcia and Diana Alonso would seem to have been the fault of the drunken driver and the failure of the occupants to wear their seat belts. If any party were to be sued, it would seem logical for the families of the dead women and the injured passenger, Arturo Guerrero, to sue the driver, Saul Guerrero Jr. But Saul Guerrero Jr. had no assets. That left Ford as the only party with significant assets.

Plaintiff attorney Mikal Watts would blame the injuries and death on Ford Motor Company. He argued that the glass used for the side windows of the truck was unsafe because it broke and came out of its seal too easily, allowing passengers without seat belts to be ejected from the vehicle and maimed or killed. The type of glass used in the side windows of the 2000 Ford Explorer, tempered but not laminated glass, was used in 99 percent of the vehicles available in the United States that model year. The question of which type of glass provides the most "cost effective" product to prevent ejections during rollovers had been studied by the auto industry as early as 1971. In the year 2000 models, laminated side glass was available only in a few high-dollar foreign cars, including some models of Mercedes, Audi and BMW. ....

As the trial date approached, the status of Saul Guerrero Jr. was murky. Guerrero, the driver, had been sued by his own lawyer as a defendant with Ford. To maintain joint and several liability against Ford, the plaintiffs had to sue Saul Jr. But that put Jesse Gamez in a bind. Gamez had signed a contract with Saul Jr.'s father to represent his son. The canon of ethics prohibits a lawyer from representing opposing parties in the same lawsuit. So Gamez referred Saul's case to a San Antonio attorney, who had a difficult time meeting with his client and was unable to file motions on his behalf. That attorney eventually withdrew from the case, or tried to, in the weeks prior to trial. Saul Jr. was apparently unreachable......

Judge Abascal had another problem remaining. It was several days into the trial before Ford challenged Diana Palacios' presence on the jury. San Antonio Express-News reporter John MacCormack had reported on the gift of roses from Gamez to Palacios. All copies of the newspaper in the area were bought up as soon as they were delivered that morning, but the publishing company was happy to bring another run of the edition down to newsstands. Abascal finally excused Palacios from the jury on Feb. 22, but by then, the damage may already have been done.

After the trial ended, two jurors signed affidavits for Ford saying that Palacios improperly talked about giving money to the victims' families throughout her time on the jury. One was Juanita Alcala, a cashier at Wal-Mart, and the other was Jose Alfredo "Freddie" Belmares, a father of three and an auto and diesel mechanic....

Asked about his initial allegations that Palacios "was trying to influence the jury before she left," Belmares confirmed, "Yeah, I did say that." Does he still think it's true? "Yeah, I do," he said, adding the only reason he recanted "was to be left alone. I didn't want to mess with it anymore."....

Although the jury was not sequestered during trial and was instructed not to discuss the case before the presentation of evidence and the testimony of witnesses ended, Belmares said some jurors talked about the trial during breaks when they were together in the jury room. "I was upset while it (the trial) was going on because you're judging somebody before you know all the details," he said. "I felt bad about the other jurors because, being proud of this town (and) from here, I felt people from here were more open-minded. So I felt letdown a little bit."....

Alcala said her mother became alarmed about their safety after the trial when the attorneys and their investigators began visiting the jurors' homes and businesses and pressing them to sign affidavits. One representative even approached Alcala at work at Wal-Mart. Like Belmares, she said she signed his affidavit recanting her statements to Ford without reading it because she was tired of being hassled......

What emerges from interviews months after the pressure and bustle of the trial is a portrait of a small town ostracizing those who wouldn't go along with putting serious money in the pockets of one of its respected, prominent families.....

Although Ford attorneys initially filed requests for new trials and appeals based on the allegations of impropriety, by the end of 2005, Ford had settled the case for an unannounced amount before further appeals could be heard. The automaker was also well on its way to settling many of the other lawsuits brought by Mikal Watts in South Texas arising from the issue of side window glass. Because Ford dismissed its appeal, to date the issue of liability for side window glass has not been ruled on by an appellate court in Texas. But the change of standards for the glass has been made nationally. As for Saul Guerrero Jr., the driver, he secured new attorneys to try to win a new trial against Ford Motor Company. The outcome of that attempt is still pending.

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Sunday, October 15, 2006


Two articles below

After posting bond, March trial witness Farris re-arrested

Russell Farris, the convicted felon who was influential in convicting Perry March of the murder of his wife, was arrested Friday morning on an aggravated assault charge. His arrest came exactly two weeks after prosecutors dropped two of Farris' three outstanding charges for attempted homicide and especially aggravated robbery, and Farris was able to post bond and walk out of jail.

But his freedom was short lived, as Metro Police arrested Farris - without incident - Friday morning after his girlfriend took herself to the hospital seeking treatment for injuries she claimed were the result of an Oct. 3 domestic dispute with Farris.

South Precinct Patrol Officer Brad Turner responded Friday to a call at Southern Hills Hospital concerning an alleged domestic assault that occurred on Oct. 3. The victim, Kimberly O'Dell, 37, said that she and her boyfriend Farris, got into an altercation after she told Farris, who she claims had been drinking and taking prescription anti-depressants, not to drive. "She said he became angry. She said he hit her in the face, causing scratches under her eyes and on her forehead. She said that he took a knife from her and held it to her throat and said that if she called the police he would kill her," Metro police spokesman Don Aaron said Friday. Aaron said O'Dell drove herself to hospital this morning. Officers accompanied her to her home, where they observed holes in the wall she claims were made by Farris.

Officers then went to Farris' Whispering Hills Drive residence where they placed him under arrest. His bond has been set at $10,000.

It was while Farris was in jail on the attempted murder charge that he was able to befriend March, and eventually agreed to work with prosecutors - in hopes of a reduced sentence - to record March planning to kill his in-laws. March was convicted of murder on Aug. 17. Prosecutors and March's defense attorneys both said that the conversations Farris was able to record of March were the most damaging piece of evidence the state had.

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Comment on the above:

Testimony for freedom should be re-examined

We have all seen enough cop shows on television to know that when criminals are put back on the streets in exchange for information in high-profile cases, something bad always happens after a commercial break. Suspects walk. Cops fume. Crimes get committed. New victims have to suffer. Fortunately, TV is not reality, right?

Perry March is behind bars after a 10-year investigation and almost no one disputes his incarceration is a good thing. But anyone who relies on the criminal justice system to keep murderers behind bars and everybody safe should at least question whether it is appropriate to rely on convicted criminals to testify against defendants, or worse, trade their testimony for consideration in prosecuting their cases and recommending sentences. The present danger in the current system, where prosecutors offer no real promises - other than the promise of consideration - is that others worthy of prosecution will be allowed to walk.

Many convicted felons do indeed gather damaging information on suspected criminals. But many of those same felons are dangerous individuals. And in the current environment, one has to wonder how many more victims are created by releasing some of the baddest of our apples. Consider the case of Russell Farris, the felon who was instrumental in getting March convicted. He secured the tapes of March discussing the detailed plot to kill Carolyn and Lawrence Levine, so they [the parents] would be unable to testify against him at his trial for the murder of Janet.

March sought out Farris, who was in jail on charges of attempted homicide, to carry out the hits. But Farris had other plans, which included turning March in. With Farris' testimony, prosecutors were able to convict March of conspiring to commit murder, and then convict him of the original 1996 murder. Two months later, Farris got a thank-you note when two of his charges, including attempted homicide, were dropped, and he was out on bond.

His excitement at being a free man lasted all of two weeks, when it was alleged that he had assaulted his girlfriend. Now Farris is back behind bars, and probable cause has been found to conclude that another victim was created in the process of chasing justice. At least she isn't in a body bag. The system is nowhere near perfect. But how long do we allow prosecutors to use felons - as opposed to good old-fashioned police work - to secure convictions? When it comes to public safety, are we really safer when March is in jail and Farris is on the street?

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Saturday, October 14, 2006

Cory Maye update

From Radley Balko

Several months ago, I wrote a column here about the case of Cory Maye, a man in Mississippi on death row for shooting the son of the local town police chief during a botched drug raid. There have been some significant developments in the case since then. But first, perhaps it's best to go over a quick summary of what happened (for a longer version, you might check a recent article on the case I wrote for Reason magazine):

Late on the night of December 26, 2001, Officer Ron Jones assembled a group of policemen to respond to a tip from a confidential informant that there was marijuana in the bright yellow duplex Maye and his family shared with a man named Jamie Smith. Smith, described in the search warrants as a "known drug dealer," had drug charges pending against him from the previous August.

Maye, who had no criminal record and barely a misdemeanor amount of ashen marijuana in his home, wasn't even named in the warrants. When the door to the bedroom where his 18-month old daughter was sleeping flew open after being kicked several times, Maye fired at the first figure to come through. The figure was that of Officer Jones. Jones is white. Maye is black. Jones was the son of the town police chief. And all of this took place in Prentiss, Mississippi, a town plagued by poor race relations, high unemployment, soaring crime rates, and a burgeoning drug trade.

Maye maintains that he didn't know the raiding officers were police. He says he fired his gun in self-defense, and in defense of his daughter. The jury didn't believe him. In 2004, he was convicted of capital murder -- the intentional killing of an on-duty police officer -- and sentenced to death.

I stumbled upon Mr. Maye's case in December of 2005 while researching a paper on paramilitary drug raids for the Cato Institute. Having reviewed close to a thousand drug raids, Cory Maye's case jumped right off the page at me. It seemed pretty clear that something was terribly wrong. When I obtained copies of the (http://www.theagitator.com/maye.warrant.pdf) search warrants and affidavits, and saw that Mr. Maye's name didn't appear on them, I began writing about the case on my personal weblog. In just a few days, blogs from across the political spectrum had picked up on the case--nearly all of them rallying to Maye's cause.

Maye's plight soon caught the attention of Abe Pafford, an associate at the large Washington, D.C. law firm Covington and Burling. Mr. Pafford got in touch with Maye's post-conviction attorney, a local public defender named Bob Evans, and soon the Covington firm was funding its own investigation, hiring its own experts, and assembling a new motion to overturn Mr. Maye's conviction.

Earlier this month, a private investigator hired by Maye's new legal team discovered the identity of the confidential informant whose tip led to the raid. He is Randy Gentry, a poor, uneducated local and, unfortunately, raving racist. When Mr. Gentry found out the investigator was working for Mr. Maye's defense, he left a profane 45-second rant on the answering machine of one of the defense lawyers, complete with racial epithets and threats. The messages have been posted on the Agitator Web site. Mr. Gentry, described in police affidavits and search warrants as reliable and trustworthy, has apparently been used as an informant on several occasions, and put more than a few black people in the area in jail.

Late last month, a bit of good news finally came Cory Maye's way. At a hearing in which he listened to a battery of defense motions, circuit court Judge Michael Eubanks issued two rulings from the bench. He first found that Maye's attorney during the guilt or innocence phase of the trial, a Jackson lawyer named Rhonda Cooper, was competent. But Eubanks also ruled that Cooper was incompetent during the death penalty phase of the trial. With that, Eubanks ordered Maye to be taken off of death row pending the new sentencing trial.

Eubanks will rule on the remaining defense motions later. He could leave things as they are -- upholding the conviction, while ordering a new sentencing trial. He could also order a new trial. He could even set Mr. Maye free, finding insufficient evidence to support a conviction. After sitting through the two-day hearing in Poplarville, Miss., I found the defense case for a new trial or a not-guilty verdict devastatingly persuasive. But if there's reason for optimism, it should be a cautious optimism. Judges rarely grant these types of motions. Should Judge Eubanks' remaining rulings not go his way, Maye would then get a direct appeal to the Mississippi state Supreme Court, after which he would begin his federal appeals process. There is also the possibility of a pardon or clemency from the governor, though with the current governor, that seems unlikely.

Cory Maye shouldn't be in prison. His reprieve from the death chamber is a good start (perhaps the best benefit of that is that he'll now be able to actually touch his children when they visit, something he hasn't been permitted to do for two-and-a-half years while on death row). It's hard to fathom that a man with no prior record and a miniscule amount of marijuana in his home would intentionally shoot and kill a police officer. The bizarre behavior from prosecution witnesses, Maye's first attorney, and the town of Prentiss itself only confirm suspicions that a terrible injustice has transpired.

But beyond that, Mr. Maye's case should provoke a national debate about drug policing, including the use of confidential informants and confrontational paramilitary tactics. Despite the predicament he's in, Mr. Maye at least now has the benefit of adequate counsel. Makes you wonder how many like Mr. Maye don't, and sit in prison cells waiting for someone to stumble upon their story, too.

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Friday, October 13, 2006


A teenager who wandered freely through an unlocked police station, stole the keys to the gun safe and then took a patrol car on a high-speed joyride has escaped with a slap on the wrist. And now the 17-year-old wants to be a police officer to "show them how it's really done". "They told me I still can (join NSW Police) and I wouldn't mind being a copper," the youth revealed exclusively to The Daily Telegraph.

This is despite an admission that eight weeks before he broke into Corrimal police station, near Wollongong, he had broken into a patrol car and stolen a bag. The major security breach at the police station in August embarrassed the force. An internal investigation is expected to wind up within the month and new security procedures have been implemented.

Even the boy is amazed his punishment was nothing more than taking part in youth conferencing, where "they just told me to stay out of trouble and that's about it. Oh, and do my homework". He did not even lose his provisional driver's licence despite having stolen a police car. Nor has he been asked to pay for damage caused when he hit a gutter. "My friends thought it was hilarious. I got fined $384 for driving a V8 because I'm still on my P-plates. But yeah, it was a stupid thing to do," he said.

The youth's revelation that he simply walked into the station while highway patrol staff were on the road contradicts police reports the station was locked. "I walked straight in. The door was unlocked. It definitely wasn't locked," he said. "It was too easy. I reckon they were lucky it was me. Most of the criminals I know would've gone through and cleaned out the whole place." Instead, the boy wandered about the station for 10 minutes before stealing police radios and keys. Police confirmed one of those sets of keys gave the boy access to the station gun safe containing police-issued Glock handguns, although the weapons were also secured by padlocks. Another set gave him access to all in-car camera video units across the state.

While contrite about his actions, he could not help but gloat about taking the stolen V8 SS Holden Commodore marked patrol car to speeds of 160km/h after drinking half a bottle of bourbon. The vehicle's return also went unnoticed and he was not arrested until two days later.

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