Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Skeptical Juror and the Texas Condemned Man

The Skeptical Juror and the Texas Condemned Man
by David Protess

Originally posted at HuffPost Chicago on August 14, 2012.

He is an unlikely watchdog over the criminal justice system, a 64-year-old former aerospace engineer from Southern California with no formal legal training. Yet his blog, The Skeptical Juror, has rapidly become must-reading for journalists, lawyers and lay persons interested in wrongful conviction cases that otherwise might escape attention.

Meet the man behind the blog, J. Bennett Allen, who stopped an injustice in its tracks as a juror in a 2007 child molestation trial. Allen, the foreperson, came to believe the defendant was innocent. The 11 other jurors thought otherwise. Using his training as an engineer, Allen skeptically questioned each piece of evidence until -- in a scene that reprised Henry Fonda's 12 Angry Men -- he converted all but two of the jurors. The judge declared a mistrial, the defendant was eventually freed and Allen morphed from a skeptical juror to The Skeptical Juror.

"It was eye-opening to see how easily an innocent man could have been convicted," Allen recently told me. The experience compelled him to begin scrutinizing court records in other cases, and his blog was born. Altogether, Allen has deconstructed the evidence in 97 criminal cases and written four books about wrongful convictions, including The Skeptical Juror and the Trial of Todd Cameron Willingham -- about a Texas man who was executed for a crime he likely did not commit.

Now he is faced with his "most daunting" case, one that involves another Texas death row prisoner. And he worries that his scientific assessment of the condemned man's innocence will fall on deaf ears.

Allen has cause for concern. The clock is ticking for Preston Hughes, 46, who won't turn 47 this Christmas Eve if Texas lawmen have their way. Hughes is scheduled for execution on Nov. 15 for the 1988 stabbing deaths of a teenage girl and her 3-year-old cousin in west Houston.

Allen acknowledges that the case against Hughes seems, at first blush, to be "insurmountable." He confessed his guilt not once, but twice. As troubling, the teenager uttered Hughes' name before she died, the authorities said. Physical evidence? A knife said to be the murder weapon was found in Hughes' apartment, not far from the crime scene, and there was evidence of blood on his clothing. And what were the teen's eyeglasses doing on Hughes' couch, discovered during a police search?

But Hughes has steadfastly professed his innocence since his arrest, and Allen decided to revisit the evidence, as he had as a juror. "I was curious," he said, "and a bit suspicious" because of irregularities by Houston's crime lab in previous cases. The more Allen looked, the more skeptical he became.

After poring over documents and interviewing experts, Allen became convinced that Hughes had been wrongfully convicted. Since March, he has posted 49 blogs that reveal the following:
  •     The confessions. Allen discovered that the confessions were not only mutually inconsistent, but both were fundamentally at odds with the crime scene evidence. For example, Hughes confessed to wildly stabbing the victims, but in fact each was killed with two precisely inflicted wounds. The confessions were taken in the middle of the night and not videotaped.
  •     The dying declaration. Reviewing the autopsy report of the teen's body, Allen noticed that her carotid artery and jugular vein had been severed. Consulting the scientific literature and a noted pathologist, he learned that the victim would have lost brain function within 90 seconds -- at most. Since the first cop did not arrive at the scene for at least 15 minutes, the victim could not possibly have identified Preston Hughes, or anyone else, as her assailant.
  •     The murder weapon. Using 3-D and 2-D models, and the forensic evidence, Allen determined that the neck wounds on both victims were made with a double-edged blade approximately 5/8 inches wide. But Hughes' knife has a single-edge blade approximately 1 inch wide. Allen concluded that it was "impossible" for Hughes' knife to have been the murder weapon. As for the blood on the knife, the Houston crime lab was unable to link it to either victim.
  •     The bloodied clothing. Reading the trial testimony revealed to Allen that no blood was actually found on Hughes' clothing. A crime lab official may have misled the jury into believing that a positive preliminary test for blood was proof of its presence. In fact, follow-up tests did not determine that spots on the clothing were human blood.
  •     The eyeglasses. The authorities claimed that the teen victim's glasses were found on Hughes' couch during a search, but Allen checked the initial inventory of items taken from the apartment and noticed that the glasses were not listed. Suspiciously, they later appeared in a photograph of the couch. In his latest post about the case, he opined that the glasses were most likely planted by police.
And, the kicker: Allen has identified an alternative suspect, a man who lived in walking distance from the crime scene, knew the victims and vanished from the Houston area the day after the murders. Police never investigated this man, who is now serving life in a Texas prison for a violent crime spree in 1991.

In light of Allen's digging, will Hughes be freed? It's unlikely. Although 12 condemned prisoners in Texas have been exonerated in recent years -- the third highest number of death row exonerations of any state -- Hughes is facing an uphill battle.

The biggest obstacle: He is black and poor and does not have a legal team that is pushing for a new trial based on factual innocence. Just as a court-appointed lawyer failed to spot the holes in Texas' case at the time of Hughes' trial, another court-appointed lawyer has similarly let him down in what could be the final three months of his life.

It is inspiring that J. Bennett Allen has relentlessly challenged Texas' version of the evidence. But it is equally dismaying that this scientist-turned-blogger might be a condemned man's last hope.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Two Important Documentary Film Projects About Wrongful Conviction

Two young documentary filmmakers, Sheila Sofian and Nicholas Kleczewski, are seeking support to help bring their projects to completion.  Both projects -- Ms. Sofian's TRUTH HAS FALLEN and Mr. Kleczewski's SEALED FATE -- address the issue of wrongful conviction.  DNA has forced the American public to admit what police, lawyers and judges have always known, that innocent people are convicted every day.  Ms Sofian and Mr. Kleczewski go beyond the laboratory exonerations, however, and expose the roles of witness perjury, police and prosecutor misconduct, and "tough on innocence" judges.  Here, in their own words, these filmmakers share their visions, and offer us the opportunity to become part of it.


For over ten years I have been working on the film “Truth Has Fallen,” an animated/live action documentary about wrongful convictions. This film examines the cases of three people who were convicted for murders they did not commit, and highlights weaknesses in our justice system. Painted animation expresses the fury and grief of their testimony, and represents their version of events. Surreal live action film portrays the experts’ testimony, providing a more detached perspective. “Truth Has Fallen “ exposes causes of wrongful convictions, such as the inaccuracy of eyewitness identification, the unreliability of “snitch” testimony, and forced confessions. Experts advocate for relatively simple changes to our justice system in order to reduce the rate of wrongful convictions. A massive undertaking, I have so far animated over 30 minutes of footage in 7 years (over 22,000 individual paintings.)

Please consider supporting this film. After all these years the animation and live action has been shot. I need to raise the money to hire a composer and sound editor, and for post-production lab expenses in order to take this film to the finish line.

You can view the campaign HERE, which includes a trailer of the film.  A Longer trailer is available HERE.   For more information on the film you can check out the website: TruthHasFallenMovie.com

Thank you for your support! -- Sheila Sofian



I'm Nicholas Kleczewski a full time editor and documentary filmmaker. I'm not one for talking about myself much, but as a constant kickstarter backer myself, I know how important establishing legitimacy to a project can be. I've directed and or edited seven feature documentaries, worked directly with big music artists like Beyonce, Tina Turner, Pink, etc, my films have appeared in over 40 film festivals worldwide and I've won numerous awards including the Audience and Grand Jury Awards for Best Documentary at Slamdance which runs during the Sundance Film Festival. Some of the other festival wins with my work is shown below. My latest reel as a commercial director/editor can be found at www.trsociety.com.

SEALED FATE is a feature documentary about two Navy SEAL trainees who were convicted of one of the most famous murders in Hampton Roads Virginia history. The case was highly publicized and quickly became a media frenzy. The film follows the news reporting of the time but also goes deeper with interviews, footage, reenactments, facts and analysis from everyone involved with the case. Not only is the case covered in great detail with everyone involved but it is also gives the audience a closer look into Navy SEAL training and culture than nearly any film has shown before due to unprecendeted footage access at BUD/S, the Navy SEAL training program. But like any great documentary, what seems to be just a retelling of a notable story from the past quickly transforms into something much more. We don't want to give that away completely, but since we are asking you to invest in this project we will say that as you can see in the promo trailer above, things are not as they seem, who's guilty, who isn't, who was motivated for personal or political gain and who just wanted justice no matter the cost quickly come to light and by the end the audience will have a whole different take on the story then when it began.

I've launched a kickstarter project to help raise funding to complete the long in development film and all the info you could ever want to know and a trailer can be found at: SEALED FATE

Thanks so much for your support! -- Nick Kleczewski

Thursday, August 02, 2012

A Novel Approach

Ray Dix is one of our favorite novelists.  Why?  Because he draws his inspiration from his own experience and expertise as a death row defender -- one of those courageous attorneys who takes on the worst cases, with the grimmest outcomes.  A Public Defender in Florida, Ray has tried cases, written appeals, and served as a research and writing attorney for the judges of two judicial circuits over a twenty-two year career.

And, of course, Ray can write.  His characters spring to life, fully formed and three-dimensional. We love them or we hate them, we understand them or we are confounded by them.  They are REAL to us, because Ray makes them real.  It's a rare gift.

Ray's second novel, TAMPA BAY BLUES, has just been published.  The back cover gives a brief -- and tantalizing -- description:

TAMPA BAY BLUES takes you deep into the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous and the unsettling world of police interrogation techniques.

Ex-Public Defender Woody Thomas’ friend from Alcoholics Anonymous, David Ingel, is murdered and Woody represents Robbie Battles, a mutual friend from AA who is charged with murdering David during an alcoholic blackout. Woody turns to detective Kyle Murdock, a former Navy SEAL, for help in an investigation that leads from the horse country of Ocala, to suburban Tampa and the beaches of Tampa Bay.

Unfortunately, Robbie Battles has confessed to the murder, the police have a murder weapon, and David's beautiful widow has a snub-nosed .38 Special and a passion for revenge.

You can find and purchase TAMPA BAY BLUES at Amazon any time.  But from August 3 to August 5, you can download the Kindle version -- FREE.  Click HERE to check it out. Even if you miss the free download, don't miss the opportunity to meet Ray's characters.  You'll never forget them.

And more good news -- Ray's first novel, DEATH ROW DEFENDER, is being re-released as CLEARWATER RUN.  Check for it at Amazon in September (2012).