NY Top Court Does the Right Thing, Finally

So you spend 10 years in prison like Douglas Warney, a mentally challenged young man who confessed to a crime he did not commit. The courts finally overturn your conviction based upon new DNA evidence of your innocence. You emerge from prison ill, with little money and less opportunity, but you are free and, you would think, free to sue the State of New York, which wrongfully imprisoned you in the first place. Not so fast. New York State law up until this week prevented many who were wrongfully convicted from obtaining compensation. The Unjust Conviction and Imprisonment Act bars recovery for those whose own “misconduct” caused their conviction.

Now, in a precedent-setting decision, the New York State Court of Appeals has ruled for Douglas Warney.  The Court ruled that Warney could sue the state, unanimously overruling the lower courts which had refused to allow Warney compensation because under the existing law.  In  a letter  published in the New York Times, FalseConfgessions.org noted that close to 45% of all DNA exonerees were convicted based upon a false confession, technically precluding them from gaining compensation.

Prosecutors and state attorneys are reluctant to do the right thing. As Jim Dwyer, in a New York Times column reminds us,”The state attorney general’s office, first under Andrew M. Cuomo, and now under Eric T. Schneiderman, had argued that Mr. Warney, while innocent, had brought about his own conviction. Therefore, they argued, he was not eligible to get money under a state law intended to help people who were wrongly imprisoned.”

It is the courts and judicairy that must step up to do the right thing, finally.

New York Adopts Protocols for Video Recording of Interrogations

New York State Law Enforcement Community Announces Protocols for Videotaping Police Interrogations

The Associated Press reports that New York State District Attorneys Association, New York State Sheriffs’ Association, New York State Association of Chiefs of Police, New York City Police Department, New York State Police and the New York State Bar Association will announce the adoption of statewide protocols governing the video recording of custodial interrogations.

While the details of how these new regulations will be implemented across the board has not been revealed, the decision of the law enforcement community to adopt these major changes could have a significant impact on reducing the number of false confessions leading to wrongful convictions.

According to experts, New York State ranks only second to the state of Illinois in the number of wrongful convictions nationally.  Falseconfessions.org has begun compiling data on wrongful conviction exonerations in New York State over the past 25 years, estimating that there have been at least 120 exonerations since the 1980s.

Illinois One Governor Away From Abolishing Death Penalty

Wrongful convictions and false confessions have led to dozens of innocent men on death row in Illinois. In Chicago alone, one police commander, Lt. Jon Burge, was responsible for torturing false confessions from 100 men in the 1980s.

The abuse of suspects in Illinois was so notorious that former Illinois Governor George Ryan would suspend Illinois”s death penalty and release all prisoners from death row.

Now, the Illinois House and Senate have both passed a bill to abolish the death penalty. All it will take is the signature of the current Governor to make it real. Abolition in Illinois could have a ripple effect in other states.

Please spread the word. Call Gov. Quinn today! They”re just one signature away from making history as the 16th state without the death penalty!

Please contact Governor Quinn right away to tell him you hope he’ll sign the death penalty repeal bill.

Call one of his offices. Springfield Phone: 217-782-0244,

Chicago Phone: 312-814-2121

The Governor is getting many calls today, so if your call doesn’t go through or a voicemail box is full – please call back later.

It was eight years ago that Governor George Ryan commuted the death sentences of all those on death row.  It’s time for Governor Quinn to make a historic decision of his own.

Steve Drizin, one of the country”s leading experts on wrongful convictions and false confessions and his colleagues at the Center on Wrongful Convictions are asking all of us to support this effort.

Illinois Death Penalty Ban Should Spark National Conversation

Last Wednesday, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed legislation (Ill. S.B. 3539) abolishing capital punishment in the state, and commuted the sentences of 15 death row prisoners to life without parole.

This move comes more than a decade after Illinois’ last execution in 1999. In 2000, then-Governor George Ryan placed a moratorium on capital punishment in the state after the convictions of 13 death row inmates were overturned due to reexamination of evidence. Citing the “demon of error” in the criminal justice system, Ryan commuted all death sentences in Illinois just two days before leaving office in 2003.

The new law banning the death penalty is particularly important given the number of individuals who have been wrongfully convicted in Illinois. According to the Innocence Project, there have been 31 DNA exonerations in Illinois; only Texas has had more with 42. Furthermore, of the now 267 individuals who have proven their innocence through DNA, 17 served time on death row. Beyond just DNA cases, the Death Penalty Information Center notes that a total of 138 people sentenced to death have been subsequently exonerated since 1973.

One exoneree, Anthony Porter, won a reprieve from the Illinois Supreme Court just two days before his scheduled execution. The court’s decision, however, was not based on the belief that Porter was innocent. Rather, he had tested so low on an IQ test that the court was not sure that he was capable of understanding his punishment. The stay of execution gave a group of faculty and students from the Medill Innocence Project at Northwestern University the time they needed to investigate Porter’s case and prove his innocence. He was released in 1999 after serving more than 16 years behind bars.

The recent conviction of former Chicago police officer Jon Burge also sheds light on the potentially fatal mistakes that could have occurred with the continued use of the death penalty in Illinois. In January, Burge was sentenced to 4½ years in prison for perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with the torture of more than 100 African American suspects in the 1970s and 1980s. His victims spent years in prison for crimes they did not commit, and there are still more than 20 people incarcerated as a result of Burge’s crimes.

There seems to be little question that wrongful convictions do happen, but even with this increased awareness, 34 states still allow capital punishment today.  Beyond the United States, Japan and South Korea are the only other democratic countries that permit executions.

Whether other states will follow in the footsteps of Illinois is yet to be determined. Even Texas, with the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004, does not appear to have learned from its past mistakes. Willingham, who was convicted in 1992 of murdering his children via arson, was the subject of a 2009 investigative report conducted by The New Yorker. The report debunked all of the evidence used to show that the fire was intentionally set. Even an independent investigation initiated by the Texas Forensic Science Commission produced a similar finding.

The risk of executing an innocent person is not a risk that anyone should be willing to take. Illinois, which has produced more than 30 DNA exonerations, was right to seriously evaluate and overturn its use of the death penalty. While one can live with a guilty prisoner spending his life behind bars, it is impossible to swallow even just one innocent person being put to death.

New York High Court Hears Wrongful Conviction Compensation Case

New York’s Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, heard arguments Tuesday in the case of a man seeking compensation for the nine years he spent behind bars after being wrongfully convicted of murder. Douglas Warney, 49, asked the court to reinstate his damages case against the state, which was dismissed in 2008 by the New York Court of Claims.

Warney, who has a history of mental illness and suffers from AIDS, was convicted in 1996 of stabbing a man to death in Rochester after he signed a confession and plead guilty to the crime. His sentence was vacated in 2006 following DNA tests that implicated another man as the actual killer; this man has since confessed to the crime and is now in prison.

The Court of Claims dismissed Warney’s lawsuit after ruling that he would be unable to successfully prove that he did not cause or bring about his own conviction through his false confession. The judge made her decision, however, without even ordering a hearing. The Appellate Division subsequently confirmed the lower court’s decision.

Attorneys for Warney argue that the Rochester police were aware of his mental illness and provided him with the crime details he needed for the confession. In addition to being diagnosed with AIDS-related dementia, Warney had an IQ of 68.

Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project, stated, “If his entire interrogation had been videotaped he never would have been convicted…The only way he could have gotten those details was if police fed them to him during the interrogation.”

Although the Court has not issued a ruling, Neufeld also said after the hearing that “it was clear from the comments of the judges that they find Mr. Warney’s version of what happened much more credible than the police.”

New York is one of only 27 states that has passed a statute to provide compensation to wrongfully convicted individuals. Unlike many states that offer a fixed amount for each year spent in prison, the New York Court of Claims Act (Article II, Section 8-b) allows judges to make the determination of the compensation award. This Act, however, makes it very difficult for exonerees to seek compensation if they falsely confessed or offered a guilty plea. The legislation states that the claimant must prove that “he did not by his own conduct cause or bring about his conviction.”

According to the Innocence Project, in 25 percent of DNA exoneration cases, defendants falsely confessed, pled guilty or made incriminating statements. Evidence that guilty pleas and false confessions often occur as the result of outside influences – such as police coercion or the threat of a long sentence – can only lead to the conclusion that statutes disqualifying those exonerees from receiving compensation need to be amended.

Marty Tankleff, a false confession exoneree and member of the advisory board, advised Douglas Varney on his wrongful conviction appeal while they both were in prison. Tankleff filed a federal lawsuit in 2009 for the 17 years he spent behind bars. Jeffrey Deskovic, who served nearly 16 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, also has a pending suit.

Why do false confessions happen?

Coming on the heels of the conviction of the Chicago police commander Jon Burge, responsible for torturing up to 100 defendants into making false confessions, the Chicago Tribune published an excellent articleWhat Causes People to Give False Confessions.The journalists, Lisa Black and Steve Mills quote some of the best minds in the field such as Steve Drizin and Rob Warden, from the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Notherwestern University, Saul Kassin of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Richard Leo at the University of San Francisco, who all have studied the issue for some time and universally agree that false confessions happen and undoubtedly lead to wrongful convictions.

The reason why someone might confess to a crime they did not commit are many, as outlined in the article, but the answer to the question of why false confessions happen can be reduced to the most common denominator: confessions are the most powerful tool a prosecutor has to convince a jury that a defendant is guilty of the crime and therefore, will go to great lengths, even torture, to obtain one.

According to estimates there might be tens of thousands of false confession victims our state and federal prisons, either wrongfully convicted or having plead guilty to crimes they did not commit. We know that police and prosecutors will go as far as torture to obtain false confessions, but most are the result of leading witnesses, lying to witnesses and creating an environment in the interrogation room where the only plausible explanation to a set a “facts” presented to a defendant is that they must have been involved in the crime. In case after false confession case you will find police interrogators lying to defendants to obtain their confessions, and many of the cases are eerily similar. Police interrogators will lie about a suspects DNA being found at at the crime scene, failing a polygraph test or getting a death bed call from the victim implicating the individual.  In the infamous West Memphis 3 case, 16 year-old Jessie Misskelley, Jr. with an IQ of 67, was told he failed a police administered polygraph when. in fact, he had passed. Seventeen year-old Martin Tankleff was told by detective James McCready that his dying father had awakened from his coma to implicate Marty in his brutal assault and the murder of his mother. Both young men confessed to crimes they did not commit; Marty served 17 years in prison before he was exonerated, and Jessie is serving life. His co defendant, Damien Echols is on death row based upon Jessie”s false confession.

While we may never be able to stop false confessions from happening, we certainly can create laws and policies that help limit their incidence. Some states and municipalities do have laws that mandate the recording of confessions, but requiring the recording the entire interrogation process is more effective. Preventing police from lying to suspects, especially those who are young or who have mental disabilities would certainly be an important change. But that is not likely. As Suffolk County detective McCready informed CBS News 48 Hours” correspondent  Erin Moriartiy when she asked why he lied to obtain young Martin Tankleff”s confession, he responded, “because the Supreme Court gave me the right to lie.”

Only Four Years for Ex-Police Officer Accused of Torture in 100+ Cases

U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow sentenced former Chicago police officer Jon Burge to 4½ years in prison on Friday for perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with the torture of more than 100 African American suspects in the 1970s and 1980s.

Although he could not be prosecuted for the torture allegations due to the expired statute of limitations, the U.S. Attorneys office charged Burge with perjury in 2008 after he denied the abuse in a 2003 civil lawsuit against the city of Chicago. Madison Hobley, who was sentenced to death and served 16 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, filed the lawsuit after he was exonerated, later winning $7.5 million dollars in a settlement with the city. Hobley claimed that Burge and his “Midnight Crew” of detectives suffocated him with a typewriter cover during questioning. In June 2010, a federal jury found Burge guilty of lying under oath.

In addition to suffocation, other victims have claimed that Burge’s torture tactics included electrocution, threats with loaded guns and the use of radiators to burn suspects. Former Illinois Governor George Ryan released four men from death row in 2003, believing that they falsely confessed to crimes after being subjected to torture by Burge. Citing the “demon of error” in the criminal justice system, Ryan commuted all death sentences in Illinois to life without parole just two days before leaving office. A bill to abolish the death penalty in Illinois was recently passed in the state’s House and Senate and is currently in the hands of Governor Pat Quinn; there has been a moratorium on capital punishment in the state since 2000.

Many of Burge’s victims were disappointed with the 4½ year sentence, including Mark Clements who was released after 28 years in prison. According to the Chicago Tribune, Clements said in response to the sentence, “This is ridiculous. This is a smack in the face once again to the African American community…This is a complete injustice.” Others, including lawyers of some of the victims, thought that Judge Lefkow’s sentence would send a strong message; the 4½ year sentence was double the sentence called for under federal guidelines.

It is difficult to understand how 4½ years can be considered justice for the hundreds of years Burge’s victims spent in prison for crimes they did not commit, not to mention the years that his victims who are still imprisoned will continue to serve. There are still more than 20 people incarcerated as a result of Burge’s crimes. Although the U.S. Pretrial Service Office’s Presentence Investigation Report recommended 15-21 months in prison for Burge, he could have received a sentence of up to 45 years. Not only did Burge torture more than 100 people during his time at the Chicago Police Department, but also he has failed to admit guilt and has not shown any remorse for his actions.

Burge’s case also raises the question of how it could take so long to prosecute him for his crimes. He was fired from the police department in 1993 due to his record of abuse, but special prosecutors were not appointed to investigate the torture claims until 2002. Following his conviction last June, U.S. Representative Danny Davis from Illinois sponsored a bill to lift the statute of limitations on torture by members of law enforcement, but the legislation has not made it out of the House Judiciary Committee.

It is unclear whether charges will be brought against other members of Burge’s “Midnight Crew.”

Illinois One Governor Away From Abolishing Death Penalty

Wrongful convictions and false confessions have led to dozens of innocent men on death row in Illinois. In Chicago alone, one police commander, Lt. Jon Burge, was responsible for torturing false confessions from 100 men in the 1980s.

The abuse of suspects in Illinois was so notorious that former Illinois Governor George Ryan would suspend Illinois”s death penalty and release all prisoners from death row.

Now, the Illinois House and Senate have both passed a bill to abolish the death penalty. All it will take is the signature of the current Governor to make it real. Abolition in Illinois could have a ripple effect in other states.

Please spread the word. Call Gov. Quinn today! They”re just one signature away from making history as the 16th state without the death penalty!

Please contact Governor Quinn right away to tell him you hope he’ll sign the death\r\npenalty repeal bill.

Call one of his offices. Springfield Phone: 217-782-0244,

Chicago Phone: 312-814-2121

The Governor is getting many calls today, so if your call doesn’t go through or a\r\nvoicemail box is full – please call back later.

It was eight years ago that Governor George Ryan commuted the death sentences of all those on death row.  It’s time for Governor Quinn to make a historic decision of his own.

Steve Drizin, one of the country”s leading experts on wrongful convictions and false confessions and his colleagues at the Center on Wrongful Convictions are asking all of us to support this effort.

Colorado Governor Pardons Man Executed Seven Decades Ago

The recent pardon of Joe Arridy, a Colorado man who was executed more than 70 years ago, raises serious questions about how it could take so long to clear an innocent person’s name.

Last Friday, January 7, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter granted a posthumous pardon to a man who was executed in 1939 for killing a teenage girl. Joe Arridy, who had an I.Q. of 46, was convicted in 1937 and executed by lethal gas at the age of 23. Today, he would be constitutionally ineligible for the death penalty due to his mental disability.

A press release from the Governor’s office stated, “An overwhelming body of evidence indicates the 23-year-old Arridy was innocent, including false and coerced confessions, the likelihood that Arridy was not in Pueblo at the time of the killing, and an admission of guilt by someone else.”

Arridy confessed to the 1936 sexual assault and murder of 15-year-old Dorothy Drain that occurred in Pueblo, Colorado. Both Drain and her sister were attacked in their home with a hatchet on August 15 or August 16, 1936.

His confession is believed to have been false due to the significant inconsistencies with the actual facts of the case. For example, Arridy made statements that he acted alone and killed Drain with a blunt instrument, not a hatchet. Additionally, another man, Frank Aguilar, was arrested at Drain’s funeral and charged with murder. As a result of the inconsistencies, Arridy was forced to give a second confession, in which he changed his story and said he actually committed the crime with Aguilar.

Aguilar, however, always maintained that he had never met Arridy, and he confessed to his attorney that he was guilty. Even the murder weapon was found in Aguilar’s house. Aguilar was found guilty and executed in August 1937.

In a sworn statement, a doctor from the Colorado State Home and Training School for Mental Defectives, where Arridy lived since he was committed at 10-years-old, described him as having the mind of a six and a half year old, incapable of giving a reliable confession or defending himself in court. According to the Governor’s statement, Arridy spent his days in prison playing with a toy train, and he asked for nothing but ice cream for his three final meals.

Today, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Atkins v. Virginia (2002) protects mentally disabled individuals like Arridy from being sentenced to death, holding that such executions are cruel and unusual punishments prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.

Although this marks the first time any executed person has been pardoned in Colorado, we must ask why it took more than seven decades to clear Arridy’s name. His guilt has been doubted since the time of conviction, and his story has been featured in many books and articles. Even though it has been proven that wrongful convictions do happen, and 265 individuals to date have been exonerated with the help of the Innocence Project, Colorado is not represented in any of those cases. While it may be appropriate to praise Governor Ritter for issuing this pardon, Arridy’s case must also serve as a call to action for our elected officials, public defenders and prosecutors, among others. His pardon should not be viewed as an act of justice, but rather a symbol of the injustice that pervades our system.

A Holiday Note

“He’s free. Marty”s free,” I screamed out to my wife as the plane landed in Mexico for our long awaited family vacation. My two teenage boys looked at me in shock and all of us hugged each other in the middle of the aisle, crying with joy and relief at the news jumping out of my blackberry: Marty Tankleff was being freed from prison in the wrongful conviction murder of his parents in their Long Island home in 1988.

It all came back to me when I received an email from Marty this week, “Just imagine how all our lives have changed, especially mine, three years ago today, with just a piece of paper.”

After 17 years in prison, Marty Tankleff, who had been sentenced to fifty years to life, was freed by four judges on the New York State Appellate Court.

Marty’s freedom came as a result of the work of dozens of lawyers, private detectives, retired judges, journalists, professors, public relations executives, the few politicians who really cared, friends and family. Most of all, it was by force of Marty’s personality and his story of injustice, which he told over the 17 years and 50, 000 letters he sent to people he hoped might listen to the tragedy of his life, the murder of his parents, his coerced, false confession and wrongful conviction.

In the years before Marty was released, especially during all the terribly disappointing legal setbacks he faced, I would often dream about what it would be like when it was finally over. How it would feel to end my obsession with Marty’s struggle. While Marty was upstate, I was in a prison of my own making, committing my life and the lives of my family to this quest to free an innocent man. It was all Marty, all the time. Within a few minutes of meeting someone, I would quickly assess whether they would be a welcome ear to my point of view on the case. And woe to the person, friend or journalist who showed little interest in my world. My wife even felt it necessary to warn me not to mention Marty’s plight in the eulogy I was preparing for her mother’s funeral. How could she have known I was actually trying to figure out a way to include it?

It is the third Christmas for Marty and his family, but there are thousands of others like him in prisons from Grady, Arkansas, where Damien Echols sits innocent on death row to Derrick Hamilton and Richard Diguglielmo in upstate New York, Richard Lapointe in Connecticut, Max Soffar awaiting execution in Texas, on and on and on. They need a ‘village” like Marty had to help raise awareness of their plight. They need law firms to take their cases pro bono and advocates to tell their story to the public, hoping to reach the ear of a journalist, civic leader, elected official, or even a judge or prosecutor who will decide to right a terrible wrong. And we need our legislators to establish innocence commissions and mandate the videotaping of police interrogations to prevent the high incidence of false confessions leading to wrongful prosecutions. In New York State alone, close to 50% of exonerated individuals were convicted based upon false statements made to police.

Marty’s lesson, and maybe mine as well, is never give up. Never stop sending letters from prison and, as obnoxious as it might appear, never stop talking to anyone who will listen about things as important as an innocent man.

Maybe, this holiday season some other men and women wrongfully imprisoned will get a piece of paper from a judge.