Wide Reach of Wrongful Convictions
Posted: October 27, 2014 1:09 pm
Twenty years ago, Jennifer Thompson was a college student when she was sexually assaulted in her North Carolina apartment and burglarized. The following month, Thompson identified Ronald Cotton as the assailant and he was eventually convicted and sentenced to life plus fifty-four years. Cotton remained behind bars for a decade until DNA testing proved his innocence and identified the real perpetrator as Bobby Pool. The DNA testing also revealed that Thompson had misidentified her attacker. Thompson describes the traumatic experience of the attack and the haunting effects of wrongful conviction in an op-ed that appeared in Sunday’s edition of The Hill. She writes:
My rage and hatred had been misplaced. I was wrong. I had sent an innocent man to prison. A third of his life was over, and the shame, guilt and fear began to suffocate me. I had let down everyone — the police department, the district attorney’s office, the community, the other women who became victims of Bobby Poole, and especially Ronald Cotton and his family.
Several years after Ronald was freed, I received a phone call from Bobby Poole’s last victim. I remember hearing her story about what happened to her and realizing that we all had left him on the streets to commit further crimes – rapes — that we possibly could have prevented if Ronald had not been locked up for something he had never done. The knowledge that Mr. Poole had been left at liberty to hurt other women paralyzed me and sent me into a backward spiral that took years to recover from.
This journey has taught me that the impact of wrongful convictions goes so much further than a victim and the wrongfully convicted. The pool of victims from 1984 was huge – me, Ron, the police department, our families, and the other women who became victims of Bobby Poole all suffered.
In the years following Cotton’s release, he and Thompson forged an unlikely friendship and co-author the memoir Picking Cotton, about the harrowing experience of Thompson’s misidentification. Her experience as a victim and the role she played in Cotton’s wrongful conviction has shed light on the need for legislation to protect the innocent.
Thompson writes: “The Justice for All Act, which is up for reauthorization by Congress, allows men like Ronald to obtain post-conviction DNA testing that can lead to their freedom and to the conviction of the guilty. Without access to such testing, innocent men will remain in prison, real perpetrators will remain free and new victims will have to experience the same horrors and indignities that I did. I urge Congress to pass the Justice For All Act now so that we can live in a world where the truly guilty are behind bars and the innocent are free.”
Three decades ago, a victim’s imperfect memory sent Larry Youngblood to prison.
DNA evidence would later clear the Tucson man of involvement with a 1983 child abduction and rape, but not before he would languish for a total of nine years behind bars.
Advocates are pointing to this case and a growing number of others to discredit the sanctity of one of the legal system’s most cherished prosecutorial tools: eyewitness testimony.
Last week, the National Academy of Sciences released a report evaluating the scientific research on memory and eyewitnesses, underlining key variables that can lead to flawed identifications.
The report recommends various best-practice procedures, including blind testing, (when the officer performing the lineup is unaware of the suspect), videotaping the procedure, developing standardized witness instructions and asking the witness to rate his or her level of confidence at the time of the lineup.
The Innocence Project, a national litigation and public-policy organization that lobbies for freedom of the wrongfully convicted, has pushed for states to uniformly adopt these techniques, to mixed results.
Ten states so far have enacted the recommendations by law, policy or court action. Arizona is not one of them, but some jurisdictions have voluntarily embraced the reforms.
Innocence Project officials have advocated presenting photos or suspects in sequential order instead of simultaneously. Supporters say research shows the method helps prevent wrongful convictions by reducing the pressure to “pick one.”
The Tucson Police Department was one of four agencies to participate in an Innocence Project and American Judicature Society field study using sequential testing. The agency adopted the method following the study’s report, said Tucson police legal adviser Lisa Judge.
“The impetus for us was doing what we could to rely on the most credible evidence available,” she said. “Certainly you can’t ignore that across the nation, there’s evidence that points to wrongful convictions based on bad IDS.”
Youngblood’s saga began in 1983, when a 10-year-old boy was kidnapped from a Pima County carnival, molested and held for more than an hour. The boy received a rape examination and told investigators his assailant was a Black man with a bad right eye.
But when police presented a photo lineup to the boy nine days later, it was Youngblood, a Black Tucson man with a disfigured left eye, who stood out. Youngblood was arrested four weeks later.
Youngblood’s chief defense in trial was that the boy had been mistaken, but a jury disagreed. He was convicted in 1985 and sentenced to 10½ years in prison. In a crucial misstep, Tucson police failed to properly store DNA evidence collected from the boy at the time, rendering it useless for emerging forensic technology.
Legal battles over Youngblood’s right to DNA would free and reincarcerate the man until more sophisticated DNA testing became available for the evidence. In 2000, Youngblood’s claims of innocence were at last scientifically validated. He was not the assailant.
Instead, the evidence led investigators to Walter Cruise, a Black man who was blind in his right eye, and serving time in a Texas prison for unrelated charges of sex assaults against children. Cruise later pleaded guilty to the Arizona crime.
Carol Wittels, Youngblood’s public defender who fought for his freedom, said the prosecution’s case hinged nearly entirely on the victim’s identification, despite conflicting evidence.
Several people vouched for Youngblood’s alibi — that he was baking lemon meringue pies at the time of the abduction, Wittels said.
The victim had also noted there were tufts of gray in his assailant’s hair, while a hair expert testified that Youngblood’s black locks had never been dyed.
“Larry’s case always haunted me — he was such a sweetie,” she said. “I knew he was innocent.”
Eyewitness misidentifications have contributed to 72 percent of the 318 convictions that were later overturned by DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project.
The true perpetrators were later identified in 39 percent of those cases, but were free to commit 98 additional violent crimes while the innocent were locked up, the organization says.
Experts say most of the mistaken eyewitnesses aren’t intentionally lying. While no single factor shoulders the blame for the human error, researchers say police practices often fall short on their efforts to ensure accurate eyewitness identification.
“(I)nsufficient training, the absence of standard operating procedures and the continuing presence of actions and statements at the crime scene and elsewhere may intentionally or unintentionally influence eyewitness identifications,” the report states.
Scientists have long understood memory to be malleable by time and outside variables, but advocates say jurors still place too much trust on the brain’s accuracy.
Amshula Jayaram, a state policy advocate for the Innocence Project, explains the recommended reforms as a cost-benefit analysis.
Defenders are getting trained on how to litigate using current sciences, she said, and officers using best practices are also protecting themselves from accusations of wrongdoing during an unreliable process.
“These practices are designed to improve accuracy, but you’ll never have 100 percent accurate eyewitness identifications,” she said. “Memory is fundamentally fallible.”
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said today it would be a rare case that rises or falls on the basis of an eyewitness alone without any other evidence.
Montgomery and Innocence Project officials have disagreed on the subject of sequential versus simultaneous eyewitness identification testing.
Montgomery said he has resisted the reform because scientific evidence has not backed up the claim that the sequential method is preferable. He pointed to a recent case in which a Pennsylvania man’s murder charges were dropped after a mistaken sequential identification.
ANOTHER WRONGFUL CONVICTION: IVAN HENRY “INNOCENCE ON TRIAL” by JOAN MCEWEN
I admit it…I’m a crime junkie. I’ve read every true crime book written by Ann Rule and Jack Olsen. I’m also a big fan of America’s Most Wanted, and I frequently peruse the FBI Most Wanted List. Don’t hate me when I tell you that I follow the executions in the States, even though I’m against capital punishment.
Having established my credentials to review Vancouver lawyer Joan McEwen’s new book “Innocence on Trial: The Framing of Ivan Henry” Heritage House Publishing 2014, I should also add that I’m a criminology graduate and have been married to a police officer for almost three decades.
Beginning with Steven Truscott and on to David Milgaard, Guy Morin, Romeo Phillion, Michael Morton and so many others, I have been horrified by the number of men who have languished in prison for crimes they did not commit, both in Canada and the United States.
But Joan McEwen’s story of the persecution of Ivan Henry brings it all home, right to our doorstep in Vancouver British Columbia, where a down-on-his-luck ex-con, father to two young daughters, found himself ensnared in a nightmare that still has not ended, after serving 27 years in prison.
Ivan Henry, age 35, was in an on-again/off-again relationship with ex- wife Jessie, a drug addict, when he was detained by the Vancouver Police Department as a burglary suspect. What he didn’t know was that the police were really after him for fifteen sexual assaults attributed to a sex offender the police called the “rip-off rapist”, based on the offender’s pretense that he was looking for someone who had stolen from him. Henry’s record contained one hit for attempted rape, a charge he pled guilty to on the advice of his lawyer when he lived in Winnipeg.
He denied being involved in any sexual offences and offered to take a polygraph test. The police declined his offer, but were adamant that he participate in a line-up. When he resisted, three “lean and mean” uniformed officers grabbed him and maneuvered him into a line with an assortment of their dark-haired colleagues, wrapping themselves around him, while holding his head of red hair in a vise-grip.
￼The photo of that line-up became a crucial part of Henry’s case and it was later revealed to be a “trophy”, retained by the trial judge, Mr. Justice Bouck, who proudly displayed it in the Judge’s Lounge in the courthouse at 800 Smithe Street, Vancouver. Cheap laughs…
Henry was immature and ornery, and too foolish to realize he was in water over his head when, after a preliminary hearing before His Honour Wallace Craig, he was committed to trial for ten counts of rape. Before his 1983 jury trial began Henry fired his legal aid lawyer. When offered the services of legal star, Richard Peck as trial counsel, Henry declined, believing the system was rigged and that Peck was just another player in the grand conspiracy against him.
How difficult could it be? There was no evidence against him: no hair, fibre, DNA , confession, or eye witnesses, and he had an alibi for many of the times he was alleged to be in flagrante delicto.
His trial tactics were unconventional, to say the least. Because he knew he had not assaulted any of the parade of women who identified him as their rapist, some of whom said they recognized his voice, he argued they were all liars…making it all up.
Before the trial completed Henry came to the realization that while he could handle the facts, he needed a lawyer to help him with the law. When he asked Mr. Justice Bouck to allow him to obtain a lawyer for that purpose, Bouck J. said:
“You should have thought of that before…I said you should have a lawyer. You turned it down. You elected to represent yourself. You take the chances…We’ve given you a copy of Martin’s Criminal Code.”
After ten hours of deliberation, the jury convicted Ivan Henry on all ten counts, whereafter Crown Counsel Mike Luchenko announced the Crown was seeking a dangerous offender designation. As night follows day, Henry was “bitched”, the expression used to describe criminals found to be “habitual” or dangerous offenders.
Henry poured over law books in preparation for his appeal but could not afford the thousands of dollars required for the court transcripts. Eventually he appeared before British Columbia’s Court of Appeal on a motion to dismiss the appeal for want of prosecution, brought by appellate crown Al Stewart, later Mr. Justice Stewart. Of course, the
Crown won and Henry was banished to purgatory. Later his leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada was also rebuked.
Ms. McEwen’s carefully researched story reveals indifference, betrayal, class discrimination, and worst of all, a cast of characters who didn’t give a damn about Ivan Henry. He was just the usual collateral damage in the state’s zeal to close the books on a series of assaults that continued after Henry was locked away.
As the truth spills out, we learn that Ivan Henry’s ex-wife, sold him down the river, a la Judas Iscariot, in exchange for a few pieces of silver and gold, that ended up in her arm.
The unfortunate women who were victimized by a rapist, were then victims of a justice system that wasn’t really interested in the truth, for if it had been, they could have seen it staring in their face.
It is difficult to say who comes off worse in this sordid tale. Based on Ms. McEwen’s careful narrative, it must be a tie between Crown Counsel Mike Luchenko and trial judge Mr. Justice Bouck, both of whom deserve censure for the roles they played. By 1983, it was no secret that eyewitness testimony was unreliable and could never, by itself, be the foundation for a life sentence. But that’s what happened.
Years later, when one of the heroines of this story, Crown Counsel, Jean Connor , voiced her suspicions to the Attorney-General, concerning the convictions of Ivan Henry, McEwen reports that Mr. Luchenko tried, undeservingly, to take credit for an eleventh hour redemption.
With twists and turns galore, and an unvarnished glimpse of Canada’s brutal prison system, Ms. McEwen’s book is a compelling must-read for anyone who still believes justice should be blind, and that it is better that ten guilty men go free than to have one innocent man suffer.