Monday, January 31, 2011

Giving Back Lives

On Jan. 11, after a decade of debate and the revelation that 13 prisoners had been wrongly condemned, Illinois voted to end the death penalty. The same day, in response to a powerful investigative series reported in The Raleigh News & Observer, North Carolina fired the State Board of Investigation [S.B.I.] agent and serologist Duane Deaver, who was responsible for the biased and slipshod blood reports that sentenced innocent men to prison and to death.

The catalyst for the newspaper’s investigation was the case of Greg Taylor, released from prison at the end of 2010 after 17 years behind bars for a murder he did not commit. The prosecution said that the victim’s blood had been found on Taylor’s sport utility vehicle; but according to evidence that Deaver withheld, the blood was absent. Attorney General Roy Cooper commissioned an independent audit of the serology unit for the years 1987 to 2003. In August the audit called into question the work on 229 criminal cases, including seven death penalty convictions. The S.B.I. had consistently withheld evidence that might have helped defendants. These recent findings came too late for three men who had been executed during the past 10 years. Even if the condemned men had been guilty, the withheld evidence might have influenced the jury to lessen punishment.

Moved to action by Mr. Taylor’s release, a team of five reporters studied over 15,000 pages of documents concerning the crime lab protocol and practices and interviewed lawyers, ballistics experts, lab experts, state officials and victims of the S.B.I.’s mistakes. Then they published over 60 articles, including four in-depth stories.

In 1991, for example, Floyd Brown, 46, was arrested on the charge of beating a retired schoolteacher to death. According to the prosecution, Mr. Brown dictated a detailed six-page confession. But because Mr. Brown cannot recite the alphabet or tell time and has the mental ability of a 7-year-old and could not understand the charges against him, he was locked away in a mental hospital for 14 years. Then, in 2007, the judge freed Mr. Brown, ruling that the alleged confession failed to convince.

In 2007 Kirk Turner said he killed his wife, Jennifer, with a pocket knife in self-defense after she attacked him with a 7-foot spear. Prosecutors claimed Mr. Turner killed his wife, wiped the blood-stained knife on his shirt, then stabbed himself in the leg with the spear to fake her attack. Outside experts concluded, however, that the blood stains on the shirt were not made by a knife but most likely by throwing the shirt on the floor. DNA tests revealed that the blood was only Kirk Turner’s, from his leg wound.

The News & Observer investigation revealed more than a dozen times in which S.B.I. agents bent the rules to give prosecutors the answers they sought. When a 10-year-old boy was accidentally shot in a street fight between gangs, the accused youth claimed he had returned fire from another boy. The S.B.I. bullet analyst testified that the two bullets found came from the accused’s gun. But a former F.B.I. crime lab analyst said the bullets looked “starkly different.” Today the boy is still in prison serving a 23-year sentence.

We draw three conclusions. First, science analysts in criminal cases must be highly trained and taught to see their roles as serving the truth, not the prosecution. Second, the possibility for error is much too high to allow these tests to determine whether a defendant lives or dies. Third, watchdog newspapers are indispensable for a just society.

In the first judicial response to the audit and the press’s revelations, on Dec. 30, 2010, a Durham County superior court judge tossed out the conviction of Derrick Allen, 32, after he had spent 12 years in prison for the sexual abuse and killing of his girlfriend’s 2-year-old daughter. According to the S.B.I. report, blood had been found on the child’s underwear. Allen had been induced to plead guilty in a deal to escape the death penalty; but, once incarcerated, he fought his conviction, professing innocence. The S.B.I. report of blood had been false.

Upon his release, Mr. Allen pulled his wool cap over his head and walked out into the streets alone. Later he sent a text message to his lawyer: “Thank you for giving me back my life.”

Original report here

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