We read all the time about criminal convictions that are later overturned, sometimes long after the original trial, and after the defendant has spent years in prison. We thought it would be interesting to examine the primary reasons why and how innocent people are convicted of crimes they did not commit. Some of the causes can be traced to the following categories:
- Eyewitness Identification – A large group of cases later overturned as the result of new information involve the misidentification of a defendant by an eyewitness. A disturbing aspect of this category is that there are few, if any, types of evidence that more strongly sway a jury than a witness who points to a defendant and states unequivocally that the defendant was the person who committed the crime in question. Those of us who conduct jury trials on a regular basis know that the absolute certainty of a witness in making an identification is often colored by a desire to appear knowledgeable and confident to the jury. In addition, memories not only fade, but also change, over time. An example of this is when an eyewitness sees the defendant’s picture in the newspaper prior to trial. This may buttress his belief that he has identified the right man, when in fact all he has done is identify the defendant – again.
- Questionable Forensic Science – This heading includes some forensic methods that have never been validated scientifically, such as bite-mark analysis and hair and fiber comparisons. It also includes methods that have been traditionally accepted as evidence in court, but which, through the development of additional scientific studies, have now been called into question, such as bullet matching; fingerprint analysis; and various aspects of what is called “arson science.”
- False Confessions – There are a number of reasons why someone would confess to a crime he or she did not commit. A confession could be prompted by mental illness, promises of leniency, or coercive interrogation techniques. About 25% of the DNA exoneration cases in the United States (that is, cases where DNA evidence available after the conviction effectively “proved” the convicted defendant’s innocence) involved false confessions.
- Informant Testimony – Informants are special kind of witnesses. They often having charges pending against them, and are working with the police because they want to favorably affect their own case. Because of this, “snitch” testimony always has an element of unreliability and, some might say, such testimony is inherently unreliable.
- Police and Prosecutorial Misconduct – While we believe that most law enforcement personnel are honest and forthright, there have been so many instances of misconduct that this category cannot be ignored. Examples of misconduct include failure to investigate (including failure to look at a defendant’s alibi); withholding exculpatory evidence (commonly referred to as Brady material); fabricating or planting evidence; coercive interrogation techniques, involving both suspects and witnesses; and suggestive techniques used to sway a witness to make a particular identification.
Having set the stage for the different situations which result in cases being ripe for wrongful convictions, we wanted to point out some specific cases, right here in Texas, that demonstrate the kinds of conduct that may lead to an innocent person being convicted and sent to prison. Here are but a few examples of wrongful convictions in our state:
- Three men convicted in 1994 in connection with a purse snatching were released after four other men confessed to the crime under oath. One of the original defendants was sentenced to 99 years in prison. The culprit – misidentification of the three by an eyewitness.
- A district court judge in Bexar County held that there was probable cause to believe there was prosecutorial misconduct in connection with the murder conviction of Michael Morton, who served 25 years of a life sentence before establishing his wrongful conviction last year. The judge ordered an investigation into the conduct of the then District Attorney, who is now a district court judge. At issue is the withholding by the prosecutor of exculpatory evidence, that is, evidence tending to support the claim that the defendant was not guilty.
- Terry Cook was convicted of rape and murder and sentenced to death. He was released after serving 20 years in prison. While not technically exonerated, his death sentence was overturned on two occasions by higher courts, and DNA evidence supports his innocence. This case is filled with the kind of examples we cited above leading to wrongful convictions. They include: informant testimony as part of a deal with the prosecutor (a jailhouse snitch testified that Cook confessed the crime to him. He later recanted his testimony); prosecutorial misconduct (withholding of information which explained Cook’s fingerprints being at the scene of the crime); and the complete disavowal of the testimony of another important witness.
- Timothy Cole was convicted of rape and served more than 13 years in prison before dying of an asthma-related illness. In 2009, over 20 years after his conviction, and nine years after his death, he was cleared of the crime based upon DNA evidence.
- Todd Willingham was charged with setting a fire in his home that resulted in the deaths of his three daughters. He was convicted and was executed in 1994. The basis for the conviction was, in part, the investigation of the fire, and the conclusion that it was the result of arson. Since that time, as many as nine independent experts have concluded that the forensic analysis, leading to the conclusion that it was arson, was simply incorrect.
It is true that some convictions are overturned years after the fact because of new technology, in particular DNA evidence that was not available at the time of trial. However, the point remains that it is certainly possible to be convicted of a crime you did not commit, and there are a variety of ways in which it could happen. Your best defense against a wrongful conviction is always to retain the services of an experienced Austin criminal lawyer, and to do so as early in the process as possible.
Law Office of David D. White, PLLC
1205 Rio Grande Street
Austin, TX 78701