Sunday, December 23, 2012

Alvarez lacks insight into wrongful convictions

The following opinion by Peter Neufeld, co-director of The Innocence Project, was published by the Chicago Tribune on December 21, 2012.

Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez claimed that "60 Minutes" misrepresented her in an episode about the wrongful convictions of nine juveniles who falsely confessed. It's important to remember the two cases involving these teenagers that motivated "60 Minutes" to report on the miscarriages of justice in Cook County.

A year after the 1991 rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl from Dixmoor, police, lacking any physical evidence or eyewitness accounts, aggressively interrogated five teenagers until three confessed. Two later pleaded guilty when told that their sentences would be decades shorter if they cooperated. Not surprisingly, in nearly 10 percent of the nation's 301 DNA exonerations, innocent men pleaded guilty to crimes they did not commit to reduce their sentences. According to the confessions, all five teenage boys had unprotected intercourse with the girl, yet astonishingly, none of their DNA was found in her. Instead, the semen recovered from the victim matched a 35-year-old convicted sex offender who had recently been paroled into her community and had no known relationship with her. Prosecutors have not charged the man.

In 1994, a prostitute was raped and strangled in Englewood. The investigation had grown cold until police picked up a boy who may have been selling marijuana. Police interrogated him for two days before he supposedly implicated four teenagers, who were convicted after each falsely confessed to the crime. Again, there were no eyewitnesses and no physical evidence connecting them to the deceased. According to the four confessions, each of the boys had unprotected intercourse with the victim, yet just as in Dixmoor, none of their DNA was present. Instead the DNA profile of the semen matched Johnny Douglas.

On "60 Minutes," Alvarez acknowledges that Douglas, now deceased, was a "bad guy" but claims his background doesn't prove he committed the Englewood crime. Douglas had been convicted of murdering another prostitute by strangulation and assaulting others by attempted strangulation. Indeed, Douglas was tried in a second prostitute murder case in which prosecutors introduced evidence that he was nicknamed "Maniac" and had a modus operandi of strangling prostitutes. A police report from the murder places Douglas at the crime scene and, when interviewed by police, claimed falsely that he "knew nothing." His semen was inside her, yet he claimed to know nothing?

After the "60 Minutes" piece aired, Alvarez criticized the TV news magazine for its portrayal of her in a public letter and in an op-ed in this paper. Incredibly, she never acknowledged in either communication that the young men were innocent and never apologized for the catastrophic loss that they endured of the best years of their lives. Instead, she vehemently fought to maintain the convictions — in Dixmoor waiting eight months to agree to a dismissal, and in Englewood opposing the court vacating the convictions to the bitter end; even after she lost, she persisted in opposing the young men's efforts to secure certificates of innocence. They had to spend needless extra months confined for crimes they didn't commit.

Through her actions, it has become abundantly clear that Alvarez lacks insight into the causes of wrongful conviction, which, incidentally, doesn't bode well for her newly formed conviction integrity unit. In almost 30 percent of the DNA exonerations, false confessions were the primary cause. Juveniles are particularly vulnerable. While the public may have a hard time believing someone could falsely confess, law enforcement has long known that it happens frequently and is trained to look for other evidence to corroborate a confession.

The public should be equally concerned with Alvarez's inability to admit that mistakes were made and that misconduct cannot be ruled out.

The first step to remediating mistakes and misconduct is to admit errors were made. The admission of error is fundamental whether a shuttle crashes, a hospital mishandles a patient in the operating room or an innocent man languishes in prison for a crime he did not commit. If you can't admit error, there is no hope for meaningful improvement or change. The most serious aspect of the way in which Alvarez handled these cases is her utter unwillingness to admit that the convictions of nine teenage boys were tragic failures of the criminal justice system.

Peter Neufeld is co-director of the Innocence Project, which uses DNA evidence to exonerate people who have been wrongly convicted and advocates for reforms to prevent further injustices. The project represented two of the young men in the discussed cases above.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Exoneration but no justice for wrongly imprisoned man in Va.

The following editorial was published by the Washington Post on November 29, 2012.

ONCE THE PAPERWORK reached his desk, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) needed just one day to grant a conditional pardon to Johnathan Montgomery, the young man who served four years of a seven-year sentence for a “crime” apparently invented from whole cloth by his accuser. Mr. Montgomery, 26, was released Nov. 20, just in time for Thanksgiving, after receiving a phone call from the governor himself; his accuser, who recanted her claims, has been charged with perjury.

Mr. McDonnell was right to move swiftly. Unfortunately, there is little likelihood that Virginia will act with similar speed to compensate Mr. Montgomery for what the governor rightly called “a travesty of justice.” Even if the courts officially exonerate Mr. Montgomery — a slow process at best — he is eligible to receive shockingly little money, and even less help, from the state whose criminal justice system dealt him such an injustice.

Unlike about half the states, Virginia does have legal guidelines for compensating people who have been wrongly convicted. They are entitled to an amount equal to 90 percent of the state’s individual per-capita income for each year they spent behind bars, up to an arbitrary maximum of 20 years. If the state Court of Appeals rules that Mr. Montgomery is innocent — and it is hard to imagine why it would not — he would be entitled to roughly $160,000.

That’s a paltry amount for a young man who has lost not just four years of income but also four years of vocational or professional development, not to mention the physical, psychological and emotional toll he suffered in confinement. While Mr. Montgomery’s peers were starting their careers, learning skills and courting and marrying, he was sitting behind bars.

Virginia takes no account of the non-economic suffering of those who are wrongly convicted. Unlike prisoners who are paroled, who might at least receive some career counseling, Mr. Montgomery is not entitled to any state-sponsored help after having been denied his liberty for four years.

What’s more, the financial compensation is not even automatic. Even if the courts declare his innocence, Mr. Montgomery would receive no monetary compensation until a bill authorizing payment is enacted by the General Assembly. That is unlikely to happen before 2014.

At that point, Mr. Montgomery would likely receive an initial lump payment of only 20 percent of the amount to which he is entitled, with the balance to be paid as an annuity after that. At a guess, he might get a monthly check for $1,000 over the course of 15 or 20 years. That is considerably less than the U.S. government pays to people wrongly convicted in federal courts.

In issuing his pardon, the governor sounded suitably outraged and sympathetic. But if the state truly wants to demonstrate remorse and make up for the wrong it has done to Mr. Montgomery, it should rewrite its laws to provide for treatment and counseling, as well as more money.