An Innocence Project report released [last week] examines eyewitness misidentifications, the leading cause of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing, and recommends simple reforms states and local jurisdictions can take to address the problem.
New DNA tests prove that Timothy Cole died in a Texas prison while serving time for a rape he didn't commit, according to papers filed Friday by his attorneys at the Innocence Project of Texas. Cole was convicted of raping a Texas Tech student in 1986 and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Nine years later, another inmate, Jerry Johnson, sent a letter to the Lubbock court claiming that he -- and not Cole -- had committed the rape. Johnson's claims, however, fell on deaf ears, and Cole died of asthma in prison at age 38.
But Johnson's family didn't give up. In 2007, the Innocence Project of Texas took on the case and began investigating. Biological evidence from the crime was located in the Lubbock County archives. DNA test results received last months proved that Johnson was indeed the perpetrator of the crime.
And now Jeff Blackburn, the lead counsel at the Innocence Project of Texas, is seeking to have Cole's record cleared.
A story in today's New York Times reveals that former Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Daniel Bibb did something in 2005 that few prosecutors will ever do, or admit to doing -- he helped the defense win a case. When mounting evidence indicated that David Lemus and Olmedo Hidalgo were serving 25 years to life for a 1990 murder they didn't commit, Bibb was charged with reinvestigating the case within the prosecutor's office. Together with two NYPD detectives, Bibb spent two years investigating the case, and came back to tell his superiors that he believed Lemus and Hidalgo to be innocent and recommended that their charges be dropped, the Times reported today. He was ordered to argue the case anyway.
So he stayed on the case, but he began to work closely with defense attorneys, he says.
A recent article in the New York Times asks a question often heard by the Innocence Project: How many people convicted in the United States are innocent?
Observers from across the criminal justice system have weighed in.
Samuel Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan, has found the rate of wrongful conviction in death row cases to be somewhere between 2.3 and 5 percent.
A recent review of biological evidence in 31 randomly chosen Virginia cases led to DNA testing that could yield results in 22 cases, two of which resulted in exonerations Ã¢â‚¬â€œ- a small sample size but an indicator that the rate could be as high as 9 percent.
A couple of years ago, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia cited questionable and discredited calculations from Oregon Prosecutor Joshua Marquis (who divided the number of DNA exonerations by the total number of felony convictions) to make his claim that the wrongful conviction rate is .027 percent. As Gross points in a recent law review article: "By this logic, we could estimate the proportion of baseball players whoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve used steroids by dividing the number of major league players who've been caught by the total of all baseball players at all levels: major league, minor league, semipro, college and Little League -- and maybe throwing in football and basketball players as well."
The Times article notes that while there is disagreement about which calculations might help suggest the magnitude of the problem, there is a consensus that nobody really knows how many innocent people are in prison Ã¢â‚¬â€œ- and we may never know.