Things aren’t always as they seem (reflections on Joe Gliniewicz, Patrick Kane, and wrongful convictions)

The September funeral for Fox Lake (Illinois) Lt. Joe Gliniewicz was attended by thousands, and his death was cited by some as emblematic of a “war on cops.” Gliniewicz is now being portrayed not as a brave police officer gunned down in the line of duty, but rather as a criminal who stole money from an after-school program and consciously staged his suicide to look like murder so as to cover up his misdeeds.

Many commentators called on the NHL to suspend Chicago hockey star Patrick Kane in August after he was accused of sexual assault in New York. Kane is currently attempting to return to normalcy on the ice now that his accuser has formally declined to prosecute. This development followed a bizarre incident in which the accuser’s mother allegedly made a false claim that a rape-kit bag had been tampered with.

I enjoy following a juicy news story as much as the next person, and I certainly followed these two sagas in real time. Did I, or the news media, or anyone outside the circle of people personally involved, know what the real facts were? Of course not, but that did not stop the reportage of every salacious development, nor did it stop members of the public from expounding and debating as if the facts were undisputed. For that matter, I still cannot say I know the true story regarding either Gliniewicz or Kane; all I know is what I have read and heard in the media.

The Center on Wrongful Convictions freed client list is similarly filled with stories that were front-page news after the incidents occurred. It turned out that those original accounts got the facts all wrong—most significantly the identities of the perpetrators, but often other key details as well.

In the criminal justice system, “finality” is highly valued, and it usually takes a herculean effort to disturb a conviction years later based on a new factual theory. It is worth remembering, however, that the first story may not always be the true story.

Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Uncategorized

Returning to Prison for the Right Reasons

Hannah Overton, a loving mother of five, languished behind bars for seven years due to a wrongful conviction based on the tragic but non-criminal death of her foster son. The televised images late last year of Hannah leaving jail with her family brought tears to my eyes. I thought to myself that if I were she, I would do little more than nest at home and pamper myself for the foreseeable future.

Just recently, I read that Hannah had returned to prison – but this time, she was there to visit and counsel. Hannah started a prison ministry while she was locked up, and she plans to continue her service to prisoners even after winning her freedom.

Hannah is by no means the first exoneree to give back after leaving prison. One who comes readily to my mind is my former client Dana Holland, who had the distinction of being wrongfully convicted of two separate crimes, for which he was sentenced to 118 years. After a decade of incarceration, Dana was exonerated and left jail on June 6, 2003. Less than six months later, I was shocked and profoundly moved when he told me he planned to return to the same jail to help serve Thanksgiving dinner to the inmates. Like Hannah, Dana led a Bible study and counseled other inmates while on the inside. Like Hannah, he could not simply walk away after his release.

In a similar vein, Sunny Jacobs and Peter Pringle – an improbable married pair of former death row inmates (she of the United States, he of Ireland) – have offered up their beautiful Irish home as a sanctuary for exonerees. Other formerly incarcerated men and women have started foundations, worked with students, volunteered with innocence organizations, and helped ex-prisoners on a one-to-one basis.

The comedian Louis C.K. talks about the importance of being useful: “if you can be useful, it just makes you feel better.” As Hannah, Dana, and many more exonerees have demonstrated, it’s a win-win situation.

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Uncategorized

Wrongful Convictions and the Purvi Patel Appeal

What a relief that Center on Wrongful Convictions co-founder Larry Marshall will handle the appeal of Purvi Patel, an Indiana woman unjustly sentenced to 20 years in prison for feticide and neglect of a child. I have been closely following this case, on behalf of the CWC Women’s Project and out of great personal interest, and every aspect is disturbing—from the nature of the charges to the holes in the prosecution’s evidence to the sentence imposed.

The defense contended that Ms. Patel miscarried and that her baby was stillborn; if this is true, obviously there was no crime. As it happens, nearly two-thirds of proven wrongful convictions of women were in “no-crime” cases.

The prosecution’s theory was that Ms. Patel committed feticide by taking illegal abortion drugs, and, incongruously, that she committed neglect by delivering, at home, a live but very premature baby who died a few seconds after birth. The evidence supporting this theory was highly problematic and Larry will certainly bring out its weaknesses during the appeal. Indeed, Ms. Patel could hardly have chosen better in engaging Larry as pro bono appellate counsel. What is chilling about this case, though, is the unveiled threat to women that once they become pregnant, they lose autonomy over their own lives and may be criminally liable if they are deemed to have fallen short in guaranteeing a healthy birth.

Ms. Patel’s sentence is every bit as outrageous as the charges. In what universe does a woman with no criminal background, who was hiding her pregnancy due to fear of her family’s disapproval, deserve twenty years behind bars for neglect because she panicked after her baby came early? Most rapists and batterers get off with much less.

Some folks in criminal justice consider wrongful convictions to be “wrong person” cases, in which all that was wrong with the prosecution was the identity of the defendant. The Purvi Patel case, however, is an equally invidious type of “wrongful conviction” in which most likely there should have been no prosecution at all.

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Uncategorized

Serial and the CWCY

Sarah Koenig’s addictive Serial, which in its first season has explored the innocence claim of a man convicted as a teenager of killing his girlfriend, has great relevance to the work that I do at the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth (CWCY) at Northwestern University School of Law. Recently, when people find out what I do, they immediately want to talk about this podcast, which has spent several weeks as the most downloaded series on iTunes, displacing its parent show, This American Life, and inspired countless blogs, Reddit posts, and even podcasts based on the podcast—the majority of which comment on the central figure’s guilt, or lack thereof, and speculate about what really happened. Serial has sparked an unprecedented amount of public discourse about the workings—or more often, the failings—of the American criminal justice system, the slippery nature of truth, the fallibility of memory, the racism endemic to our criminal justice system, and the pitfalls of narrative journalism. In doing so, Koenig has shined a light on issues that largely live in the shadows in our society.

Koenig is also a journalist though; part of her job is to tell an interesting story, to craft an intriguing narrative in order to reel in an audience. This often requires that the details of the drama, the characteristics and situation of the protagonist, and the egregious mistakes of the criminal justice system that sealed his fate appear to be unique, exceptional, an anomaly which justifies the storytelling. The unacceptable truth is that the story told in Serial is all too common in our society.

The CWCY represents and advocates on behalf of many people like Adnan Syed every year –juveniles who were convicted of horrible crimes they did not commit, as well as juveniles whose convictions are wrongful due to egregious violations of their rights, regardless of guilt or innocence. Whether or not you believe Adnan is innocent—and certainly reasonable minds may disagree on this question—most listeners should agree that his conviction is wrongful because our criminal justice system failed him in more ways than one. Cases like Adnan’s are tragically not exceptional.

In the final episode of Serial, Koenig confronted the question of whether Adnan’s case is “unremarkable.” A police practices expert, interviewed twice during the series, aptly concludes Adnan’s case is “a mess.” Koenig says that attorneys, police, and others with whom she has spoken all agree that the case is inordinately messy. And so do I – Adnan’s case is a tangle of shifting stories from witnesses (mostly teenage witnesses), half-truths or lies, unreliable evidence, and, ultimately, no cohesive story and no solid evidence to exculpate Adnan. But I strenuously disagree with the notion that the messiness of this case is remarkable. As Rabia Chaudry, Adnan’s family friend and an attorney who first contacted Koenig about Adnan’s case commented, “it sounds like a crazy litany of ‘everything-that-could-go-wrong’ in a trial, except that all of these things did go wrong in Adnan’s case. And Adnan’s case is no outlier – for any and every wrongfully convicted person, you can assume almost everything went wrong.” Indeed, in my professional experience advocating for youth in our criminal justice system, criminal cases against kids and cases involving predominantly young witnesses are often the flimsiest, and the resulting convictions are often the most dubious.

It is not a fluke or conspiracy that so many children and teenagers are wrongfully convicted. Young people are more likely to be wrongfully convicted than adults for reasons relating to their age and lack of maturity. Children and teenager’s brains are not fully developed, and that development is critically important to successfully negotiating interactions with police and navigating our criminal justice system. Children and teenagers are categorically more suggestible, compliant, and vulnerable to outside pressures and demands from authority, such as police interrogation, than adults. Children and teenagers are less able to consider long-term consequences and weigh risks, less likely to understand their legal rights, and less likely to understand how their attorneys can help them. Children and teenagers are three times more likely to falsely confess to a crime they did not commit than adults.  Research shows that it requires the intelligence and maturity of at least a 14-year-old to comprehend the Miranda rights police are required to give to people upon arrest, yet police did not alter or further explain these rights when they read them to kids under 14 years.

I hope that the popularity of Serial will translate to increased public awareness of the plight of youth who are wrongfully convicted. Sarah Koenig and the team behind the podcast have highlighted the inconsistencies, the biases, the failures of defense, and the plethora of human errors that factored Adnan’s conviction. It is critical that fans and listeners of Serial come away with the sense that Adnan’s story is not the exception to the rule, but an uncomfortably common miscarriage of justice in an imperfect system. The media in general, and in particular, Koenig’s crafted storytelling, have immeasurable power over how those lucky enough not to have had involvement in the criminal justice system view that system’s strengths and weaknesses. One of the greatest contributions Serial has made is a cogent, compelling counter-narrative to “crime” shows like the many Law & Order and CSI iterations. The popularity of Serial, and the passion Koenig and her team clearly feel for the injustice at its center, are hopeful indications that the American public is awake to the plight of those whom our justice system has failed. My hope is that listeners will continue to educate themselves on these issues, and take action to prevent situations like Adnan’s from happening to future generations of young people.

Megan Crane, Clinical Fellow*

*Huge thanks to CWCY Program Coordinator Hope Rehak for her many wonderful contributions to this post.

Posted in Uncategorized

Exoneration Integrity

Recently, the Ohio Innocence Project announced a triple exoneration of their client Ricky Jackson and his codefendants Kwame Ajamu (formerly Ronnie Bridgeman) and Wiley Bridgeman, former death row inmates who spent nearly 40 years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit. Their convictions were based on the testimony of a then-12-year-old boy who recanted decades later. The case is reminiscent of Center on Wrongful Convictions client Jacques Rivera, who was likewise exonerated after the sole witness against him, a then-12-year-old boy, similarly recanted decades later.

In the Ricky Jackson case, prosecutors voluntarily dismissed charges last month after the recanting witness finished testifying. What they did this month, though, is even more astonishing and laudable. On December 9, 2014, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty filed a “notice of intent” document in the Court of Common Pleas intended to expedite the process of qualifying the three men for state compensation. In pertinent part, the notice states:

“[T]he Cuyahoga County Prosecutor has no evidence tying any of the three convicted defendants to the crimes, considers the defendants innocent, and joins in the defense motions to declare them so.  They have been victims of a terrible injustice. In order to further justice and to avoid the unnecessary accumulation of attorney’s fees on behalf of the defendants, it is the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s position not to oppose the anticipated wrongful imprisonment claims.”

In October 2014, the Center on Wrongful Convictions hosted a Conviction Integrity Conference, which addressed prosecutors’ efforts to take matters into their own hands and address wrongful convictions from inside their offices. Jose Torres, the head of the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Conviction Integrity Unit, was a panelist at the conference. It is to be hoped that the courageous and compassionate action by his office in the Ricky Jackson case will motivate other prosecutors to affirmatively pave the way for speedy declarations of innocence and state compensation after the dismissal of charges against innocent persons who have served time in prison.

Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Uncategorized