The Case of Debra Milke- Steve Drizin

Steve Drizin, one of the world’s leading experts on wrongful convictions and false confessions, writes: I love the unexpected e-mail or phone message announcing a win in a wrongful conviction case.  Such e-mails are rare, but even rarer in a capital case.  I received such an e-mail today in the case of Debra Milke, an Arizona woman on death row for more than two decades for allegedly hiring two men to murder her son.  I’ve always had my doubts about Milke’s guilt but I’ve never doubted that she was interrogated by a “bad cop” by the name of Saldate.  The only evidence against Debra was an alleged unrecorded confession that was the product of an interrogation by a detective who was ordered to record the interrogation but refused to do so.  The trial boiled down to a swearing contest between Milke and Saldate which Saldate won and these credibility findings have haunted the case ever since even as evidence of Saldate’s mendacious character surfaced again and again.  The  State knew that Saldate was a liar who had a long history of misconduct and disciplinary violations – yet they failed to produce this information to the defense.  It was only through the brilliant post-conviction and habeas work of Milke’s lawyers – Lori Voepel, Mike Kimerer, and Larry Hammond – that the full scope of Saldate’s misconduct came to light.  And the state court and the federal district judges paid little attention to it.

Their hard work finally paid off today in the stunning opinion of the 9th Circuit.  The opinion is based on Brady and Giglio but it is the concurrence of Judge Kozinski that deserves special mention for those who support electronic recording of interrogations.  Kozinski would have ruled that Milke should have been given a new trial on Miranda violations and on voluntariness grounds.  His opinion provides one of the strongest arguments for electronic recording of interrogations and raises questions about how much deference to give to state court factual findings when there was no basis for the interrogating officer not to record the interrogation.  Without a recording, Kozinski, writes the state of Arizona is prepared to execute a woman solely on the sayso of an admitted chronic liar, who disobeyed a direct order to record the interrogation.  That is simply too thin a reed upon which to rest a capital conviction (or any conviction, for that matter).  It’s hard to do justice to Judge Kozinski’s opinion which not only takes Saldate to task but takes his supervisors and prosecutors to task for continuing to let him interrogate suspects and build cases with confessions after his misconduct came to light.

Congratulations again to the lawyers and to Ms. Milke. After such disappointment, today is a day they can relish at least until they have to get back to work to prevent a higher court from snatching away their victory.  The Center on Wrongful Convictions has been proud to play a small role in this effort.  We filed an amicus brief in this case in 2007.  Much of Judge Kozinski’s opinion – especially his defense of recording and his lack of faith in factual findings based on unrecorded interrogations (at least in a case with Saldate) – tracks arguments we made in the amicus brief.  My colleague Laura Nirider, then “only” a law student, co-wrote the brief with me.

Steve Drizin, Center on Wrongful Convictions, Northwestern University School of Law

Great Neck Looking Back at Capturing the Friedmans

Carol Frank, a reporter for the Great Neck Record takes a look back at what happened in the infamous Great Neck mass sexual abuse case 25 years ago, featured in Andrew Jarecki”s film, Capturing the Friedmans. She interviews Arline Epstein, the mother of a nine year old who admitted to being sexually abused in the Friedman home. Arline vividly recalls the hysteria that existed at the time which, she now believes, led parents and children to make a terrible mistake. Arline”s son Michael, now 34, recently met with investigators for Friedman and told them that he lied about what happened, like many of the other boys who were pressured by police, psychologists and their parents to provide false testimony. Michael also contacted the Nassau County DA Kathleen Rice to tell his story. Arline Epstein and other parents also want to meet with the Nassau County District Attorney to tell their story and find out the truth behind the conviction of Jesse Friedman.

False Confessions, Finally Justice-Steven Drizin, Center on Wrongful Convictions

Friday’s exoneration of Damon Thibodeaux (La.) – the 300th– was just the start of a glorious week for those who follow false confessions. It’s hard to top walking an innocent false confessor off of death row (Thibodeaux) but yesterday’s decision by an appellate court in Connecticut in the case of Richard Lapointe comes pretty close (see attached opinion).

Lapointe was tricked into confessing to the murder and sexual assault (and arson to cover up the crime) of Bernice Martin, an elderly relative of his wife’s. Born with a rare mental disability – Dandy Walker Syndrome – which heightened his already suggestible and compliant nature, Lapointe was no match for the aggressive tactics used by the police. He ultimately confessed and even thought the confession was at odds with the objective evidence of the crime and an alibi – he was watching television – made it virtually impossible for him to have committed the crime, he was convicted.

Over the past nearly two decades, a group of advocates – the Friends of Richard Lapointe – have done everything in their power to bring attention to his plight. Led by Bob Perske – whose work on documenting the connection between mental disabilities and false confessions – is groundbreaking, Donald Connery (whose worked help bring attention to the issue of false confessions in the Peter Reilly case in Connecticut in the 1970’s) and too many others to name, the group has suffered through what has been a series of seemingly crushing legal disappointments. It appeared that no Connecticut court was ever going to take a look at the full context of what happened to Lapointe and give him a new trial.

Enter Kate Germond of Centurion Ministries, the matron saint of hopeless causes. Centurion Ministries, based in Princeton, NJ, is the first “innocence project” in the United States. Founded in 1983, by Jim McCloskey, CM has exonerated dozens of persons over the years in the US and Canada. The men and women they have exonerated – in both DNA and non-DNA cases — have served a total of 956 years in prison. Germond, an investigator, and Paul Casteleiro – a long-time go-to lawyer for CM – agreed to take a look at the case and scour the record for a new way back into court. DNA testing excluded Lapointe of most of the evidence but was not definitive enough to clear him of the crime. But a new hook was found – a hook that didn’t seem promising – because it required the post-conviction court to recognize prosecutorial misconduct (a Brady violation) and ineffective assistance of counsel. Investigator’s notes about the burn time of the fire, when considered in light of Lapointe’s alibi – proved that Lapointe could not have committed the crime during the time frame of the police and that of his confession. Of course, these notes had not been turned over at trial and one of Lapointe’s many post-conviction lawyers did not recognize the significance of the notes. But Germond and Casteleiro did. They hired some of the best arson experts in the country to discuss the burn time of the fire and the notion that the burn time and argued that the burn time made it virtually impossible for Lapointe to have committed the crime. After another round of disappointment in the trial court, they appealed the denial of a new trial to the appellate court. And yesterday, an appellate court reversed Lapointe’s conviction and ordered a new trial. When he learned of the decision, a stunned Casteilero replied “Holy Mackerel.”

I’ve always loved the phrase “Holy Mackerel” — even used it myself. I remember hearing from my father utter it and it was a favorite saying of sports announcer Al McGuire (it’s so much better than Harry Caray’s “Holy Cow” although I have to admit that Chicago’s stockyard history and love of the hot dog make Caray’s more appropriate for Chicago). But I’ve always wondered: what’s so holy about Mackerel?. You don’t see mackerel on the menus of most top fish restaurants and it is way down the pecking order of most popular fish (tuna, salmon, herring, tilapia, etc.). Not even sure I’ve ever tasted one. Here’s the derivation:


Recorded from 1803 with uncertain origin, but possibly a euphemism for Holy Mary, with Mackerel being a nickname for Catholics because they ate the fish on Fridays. Another suggested explanation is the practice of selling mackerel on Sundays in the seventeenth century (because its quality deteriorates rapidly), so it was known as a holy fish.

Whatever the origin—it aptly sums up what everyone who has been working to clear Richard Lapointe’s name must have felt when they read this opinion. The State is currently weighing its options which include an appeal to the Conn. Supreme Court. Here’s hoping that they decide not to appeal this case again (and ultimately decide not to retry it). Now that would be a “holy mackerel” moment!

Damien Echols Statement

Damien Echols, who celebrated his one year anniversary after being freed from death row, released a statement today in response to comments written in the New York Times and Arkansas Times about his relationship with Jason Baldwin after their release.

“In my book, Life After Death, I describe my childhood, life in prison and the incredible efforts to free me, Jason and Jesse. It is a very honest description of my life and the ways in which I have come to see the world both before and after my release. It is not a pretty picture in many ways, but it is my story. I also discuss my relationship with Jason, and anyone reading the entire book will see that it is a very poignant and loving friendship.

In the weeks prior to our release, there were some very difficult times for everyone involved and I describe them at the end of the book. This was without a doubt the most tortuous period of my life – with freedom so close and yet capable of being taken away again at any moment – and my recollections of that period are honestly colored by that torture.

After our release from prison, Jason and I had a disagreement over how I was to be portrayed in the film Devil”s Knot. The movie unfortunately has driven a wedge between us, but I will always respect Jason and love him as a friend.

I believe Jason was selfless in his decision to go along with the Alford plea that freed us, and I understand how difficult this decision was for him. For that, I will be forever grateful. My intention was not to hurt anyone, but to write honestly about my struggle.”

West Memphis 3, One Year of Freedom, Still Fighting for Exoneration!

One year after Damien Echols was released from a death sentence and Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley were freed from life in prison, the investigation into the murder of three children on May 5, 1993 continues, as do efforts to exonerate the three men. Though wrongfully convicted and freed in a unique plea deal, they have begun to rebuild their lives, with Damien about to release a book, Jason attending college and Jesse working in Arkansas.

On his life since his release from Arkansas’s death row, Damien Echols said, “It”s been one year, and I”m still adjusting to life on the outside world. I have been working on my book, Life after Death, which is coming out in September. I have also been working on our documentary, West of Memphis, which is coming out in December. All of these things serve the purpose of continuing to put pressure on the state of Arkansas in hopes that they will eventually do the right thing and reopen the case.”

Jason Baldwin said, “This has been an incredible year. Thanks to the generosity of more people than I could possibly name, I earned my first paycheck, found my first apartment and learned to drive, all the same goals I had as a 16-year-old kid that have been deferred for so long.

“Though taking the Alford Plea was a tremendously difficult choice for me, the kindness of our supporters and the opportunities I”ve been afforded make the decision a lot easier. Even so, my attorneys are still working fervently to find the real killer or killers, not only to clear our names but to deliver justice for Stevie, Michael and Christopher, whom none of us will ever forget.”

According to Lorri Davis, Echols’s wife and the person who spearheaded the effort to free the three men, “It”s been overwhelming – in good and hard ways. Everyone who has been hurt from this tragedy deserves justice. Damien, Jason and Jessie deserve to be exonerated, and the victim”s families deserve to know the truth of who murdered their children. Everyone suffers when greed and lies run amok in our legal system. Our entire society is sickened by it. We won”t stop in our quest to prove the innocence of Damien, Jason and Jessie because it”s a broken part of our lives, and the State needs to fix it.”

Sir Peter Jackson and his partner and producer Fran Walsh stated, “Year one… nothing has changed and everything has changed. We got to watch Damien dip his fruit into tomato ketchup, because he wanted to; we got to watch him make Lorri laugh and then wrap his arms around her, because he could; we got to watch others read his work and realize he is a hugely talented writer. We got to witness the new chapter in a life that thousands of people around the world prayed for, fought for and believed in – and it has been, and will always be, worth every single second of hope we ever held on to.

“We feel incredible joy that Damien, Jason and Jessie are now free and sorrow for the loss of the innocent lives of Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore. It is disgusting that some Arkansas politicians continue to put their self-serving political interests ahead of justice for the victims and their families in this case. There can be no happy anniversaries when three men continue to suffer the many effects of being wrongfully convicted and the real killer of these children is allowed to walk free.”

The legal defense teams and supporters continue to seek new evidence of the innocence of the three. All credible information uncovered by the ongoing investigation will be turned over to District Prosecutor Scott Ellington as per his commitment to review new evidence. Ellington has already reviewed sworn statements from three men who allege that Terry Hobbs’ nephew, Michael Hobbs Jr., told them “my uncle Terry murdered those three little boys.”  According to one witness, “One day Michael picked us up in his truck. He was very quiet and upset. Michael then said to us, ‘You are not going to believe what my dad told me today. My Uncle Terry murdered the three little boys.’ According to Michael, his dad called this ‘The Hobbs Family Secret’ and he asked us to keep it a secret and not tell anyone.”

There is a confidential tip line – 501.256.1775 and the the defense team is offering a $200,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person(s) responsible for the murders of Stevie Branch, Chris Byers and Michael Moore.

Illinois Man Given Another Chance to Prove His Freedom

The Chicago Tribune featured an editorial today about the case of Daniel Taylor, a man sentenced to life without parole for a double homicide that took place in 1992 when he was just 17-years-old.

His conviction was largely the result of a 25-page confession he signed two weeks after the murders. No DNA evidence or fingerprints linked Taylor to the scene, and no weapon was recovered. Furthermore, shortly after he signed the confession, Taylor recalled and an arrest report confirmed that he had been locked up for disorderly conduct on the night of the murder from 6:45 PM to 10:00 PM. The crimes took place at 8:45. In order to dispute his alibi, police officers asserted that they had seen Taylor on the streets that night and that the arrest record was incorrect. Taylor later revealed that police yelled and hit him with a flashlight, telling him that he would be let go if he confessed to the crime.

Seven others were arrested and charged for the same murders that Taylor has been serving a life sentence for. All but one have maintained their innocence, and the individual who admits involvement also says that Taylor was not there.

Last year the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit granted Daniel Taylor permission to file a new appeal. Much of the evidence they relied on to reach this decision was available before the original trial, but it was not disclosed to Taylor’s attorneys by prosecutors. This evidence includes notes from the officers running the lockup on the night of the murders and police reports containing the name of another man who was locked up at the same time, both of which could have been used to corroborate Taylor’s alibi.

The recent review of Daniel Taylor’s conviction comes nearly a decade after Cook County prosecutors reexamined the case and concluded that they had it right the first time. According to the Tribune editorial, the 2002 reinvestigation “focused more on supporting Taylor”s conviction than on exploring evidence of his innocence… They were only two-thirds of the way through the investigation when they announced their conclusion that Taylor”s conviction was solid.” Fast forward to the 7th Circuit decision, which held that the newly disclosed evidence offered “strong proof” of Taylor’s innocence and that his original confession was “suspect.”

As we have seen in countless wrongful conviction cases, innocent men and women have to endure years and years behind bars before the truth can finally come out. In Daniel Taylor’s case, he has spent more than half his life in prison and only now is being given the opportunity to prove his innocence, which rests on evidence that has been in place since before his original trial.

If Taylor is, in fact, innocent, who is going to hold the prosecutors accountable for withholding exculpatory evidence from the defense team? What will happen to the police officers who lied about Taylor’s whereabouts on the night of the murders? As we all know, prosecutorial immunity clauses lead to significant hurdles for those wanting to file civil lawsuits, and it can take years and years for a police misconduct case to get pushed through the system.

Fortunately for Daniel Taylor, he has the Chicago news media on his side willing to fight for him, but he still has a long road ahead navigating through our criminal ‘justice’ system.

To learn more about another juvenile case, please visit Erik Jensen’s website. Erik was wrongfully convicted of murder in Colorado and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole at age 17. His conviction was largely the result of false statements made by another teenager who was present at the crime scene. In prison since 1999, Erik continues to fight for his freedom.

Exoneree Jeffrey Deskovic Launches Foundation for Justice

On Friday, I had the privilege of attending the launch of The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice right here in New York City. Jeffrey Deskovic, who is featured on our site, served nearly 16 years in prison for a crime he did not commit before he was exonerated through DNA testing in 2006. Unlike many other innocence organizations around the country, Deskovic”s Foundation will accept cases in which DNA evidence is not available, and there will be a strong emphasis on reintegration and reentry services for exonerees. The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation, which is just beginning its work, already has six active cases, and has already assisted in the case of former NYPD Officer Richard Diguglielmo.

Friday”s launch and press conference were well attended, and included a number of recent exonerees including, Fernando Bermudez, Jabbar Collins, Kian Khatibi and Raymond Santana of the Central Park Jogger case. The event was featured on FOX News Good Day New York, CBS News, the CBS New York website and in The Journal News, and News TV 12. The Wall Street Journal published a feature article on the foundation as well.

Deskovic has put $1.5 million of the compensation he received for his wrongful conviction toward the Foundation, but as he stated during the press conference, this money will not sustain the organization forever. He is counting on individual donations as well as invitations to speak at schools and universities, and all of the money raised will go towards helping to free other men and women still imprisoned and working to pass legislation that will prevent future miscarriages of justice.

Congratulations to Jeffrey Deskovic and all of the individuals who helped to launch the Foundation and make Friday”s event a big success!

Possible False Confession Case Faces Setback in Michigan

A Michigan teenager remains in prison after a judge ruled last week that a confession pointing to another man as the actual perpetrator was not enough to exonerate him. Davontae Sanford, now 19, was charged with murder for the 2007 shooting of four people in a Detroit drug house. During his trial, Sanford struck a deal where he agreed to plea to second-degree murder that carries a sentence of 37-90 years.

His attorney has been trying to overturn the conviction for several years, noting that another man, Vincent Smothers, admitted to police that he was the true gunman and is now willing to testify in court. Appellate attorney Kim McGinnis also argued that Sanford has a low IQ and was trying to please the police after the murders. She pointed out that her client’s confession was never recorded and claims that police fed him details about the crime. Additionally, McGinnis argued that William Rice, a retired Detroit homicide investigator, insisted that he was with Sanford at the time of the shootings.

Although Judge Brian Sullivan noted in his ruling that a gun with ties to the murders was found at the home used by a Smothers ally, he said Vincent Smother’s confession was not enough to exonerate Sanford. Sullivan also said that Rice’s cell phone records make it unlikely that Sanford was actually with him at the time of the crime.

Sanford and his attorney plan to appeal the judge’s decision.

Cases like this show the importance of enacting reforms that seek to minimize the occurrence of false confessions. We have seen numerous instances of children, teenagers and mentally ill individuals confessing or pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit. A year ago, we shared the story of Douglas Warney, a man with an IQ of 68, who spent nine years in prison for a murder he did not commit after he was coerced into falsely confessing to Rochester (NY) police. In November, we told you about the Illinois judge that overturned the convictions of the Englewood Four, whose rape and murder convictions were largely the result of false confessions they made as teenagers.

The Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth (CWCY) at Northwestern University has drafted model legislation that seeks to prevent the wrongful conviction of minors. These reforms include a requirement for all minors to have an attorney present during custodial interrogations and the electronic recording of all interrogations and police questioning involving minors. The CWCY website provides information on more than 100 cases of youth wrongful convictions.

CNN on the Tragedy of Richard Diguglielmo

It was just a few years ago that  former NYPD officer Richard Diguglielmo was released from prison after serving 11 years behind bars for depraved indifference murder, a charge prosecutors can no longer use to obtain a conviction at all costs. Richie was off duty when he shot and killed a man who had attacked his father with a baseball bat and, who Richie and other witnesses believed, was about to kill his father. A tragedy certainly, a murder no! Despite the fact that he was acquitted of murder and even assault, the charges shockingly carried a life sentence.

In 2008, A New York State Supreme Court justice found him innocent and wrongfully convicted (see decision). Everyone rejoiced, he was free and innocent….then 20 months later, in 2010, the world ended for Richie, his fiance, his mother and father, sister, friends and supporters: the New York Appellate Court, in a bizarre and almost unheard of action, sent Richie back to prison to finish his life sentence.

Richie sits in prison today, wondering how the judges of the New York Court of Appeals could agree to overturn a reasoned decision of a respected judge. One who found Richie completely innocent after a three week hearing where compelling evidence was presented that witnesses had been coerced and evidence was withheld by Westchester County prosecutors, and that Richie acted without depraved indifference under any circumstances in protecting his father. How could the system send an innocent man to prison for doing what he was trained to do?  How could judges be so blind, so indifferent and so wrong?

CNN will air a Richie”s story for the second time on March 3, 2012 at 8 pm, 11 pm and 2 am.  The original story, broadcast in January, garnered millions of interested viewers and website visits.

Hopefully, a federal judge will review this case and set Richard free, again. Maybe the Governor of New York will hear about this story and consider the circumstances surrounding  this injustice and grant Richard a pardon or at least clemency.

We can hope! But someone needs to step in and right this terrible wrong.

New Website on Wrongful Convictions in the US and Abroad

Mark Godsey, Director of the Ohio Innocence Project and Professor of Law at the University of Cincinnati, has just launched a new blog today called the Wrongful Convictions Blog.

The web address is, or you can just click the link above.

The purposes of the blog are to (1) provide one place where you can go to get all the news and info about wrongful convictions, and (2) foster discussion, debate, and learning.  You will see that Mark has contributing editors from all over the world, and the tagline is:  “Addressing Wrongful Conviction and Actual Innocence Issues in an International Forum.” There is a place for comments and debate on each post.

If you are interested in following the blog for email updates, click “follow” in the lower right corner of your screen.

The blog will involve more than just news and links.  There will also be frequent commentaries/editorials on various topics, such as the commentaries up now about forensic odontologists attempting to validate their “science,” the state of junk science generally, reacting to prosecutorial misconduct, and conviction integrity units at prosecutor”s offices.

Congratulations to Mark and the other members of the Innocence Network team for getting this started! We encourage you to check it out.