How the System Works

When the Bill of Rights was added to the U.S. Constitution, its authors clearly intended to protect the rights of persons accused of crime. Those simply stated protections have been continuously eroded over the past 200 years. For each interpretive appellate decision that attempts to even the playing field, there are five more that steepen the grade. Our concern has turned from seeking truth to seeking convictions, and our post-conviction efforts are focused on denying any further review.

See the statistical role false "snitch" testimony has played in convictions overturned by DNA Database of Wrongful Incarcerations

Texans for Public Justice has conducted a study of cases from 1994 through 1998 in which only one side sought a hearing from the state's high court, and found Campaign Donors Get Easier Access to Texas Supreme Court.

The National Law Journal has released its annual survey of Judges Behaving Badly.

Conservatives defend the death penalty, and liberals reject it. The broader issue is the high rate of wrongful conviction. Moreover, wrongful conviction is not confined to capital offenses. If the justice system cannot convict the right person in murder cases, or convict the defendant lawfully according to the rules, how can we have any confidence that police and prosecutors are doing better when it comes to burglary, white-collar criminals, and drug dealers? Paul Craig Roberts, co-author of The Tyranny of Good intentions, explores From Blackstone to Bentham: Why Wrongful Convictions are on the Rise.

Should feelings of disgust and shame figure in legal cases? What about indignation, remorse and revenge? Sarah Boxer examines the views of philosophers, legal theorists and authors regarding what happens When Emotion Worms Its Way into Law.

FBI Crime Lab chemist Fred Whitehurst tried without success to get his superiors to do something about fellow lab analyst Michael Malone. The reason nothing happened: "Malone is very popular with the prosecution and (the oversight authority) is reluctant to criticize the FBI," Whitehurst says he was told. In tacit acknowledgement that some of Whitehurst's criticisms were well-founded, the FBI ordered reforms in the lab. But Whitehurst himself was suspended, escorted from the FBI building and stripped of his gun and gold badge. Good Cop, Bad Cop

A Texas bill that would make DNA testing available to some state prisoners requires that the prisoner first prove what the test results will be. The State's response is Insufficient.

According to a lawsuit filed by the MacArthur Justice Center and the American Civil Liberties Union, the Cook County, Illinois Public Defender's Office rejected 49% of appeal requests in a 19 month period. Why? Cutting a Backlog.

Federal judge William Keller does the LAPD's bidding by finding Bob Mullally guilty of criminal contempt for exposing some of the department's most shameful secrets. Blind Justice

Journalist and author Steve Weinberg looks at three books about wrongful convictions and the lessons they teach for journalists. These are Lessons for Everyone.

Polygraph expert and former police polygrapher Doug Williams tells us that the polygraph and its step-sister, the voice stress test, "are not capable of detecting deception or verifying truthfulness simply because there is no reaction that indicates deception. The reaction these very crude instruments record is simply nervousness." Williams goes on to say that "the polygraph’s only real purpose is to get a person into the hands of a trained interrogator for questioning without being bothered by an attorney. It is simply a psychological billy club that will coerce a person into a confession."Psychologist Michael Brock agrees with Williams, and looks at the Use of Polygraphy in Criminal and Civil Cases

Professor William Hellerstein of New York's Brooklyn Law School helped free Gerald Harris, who spent seven years in prison for an armed robbery he didn't commit. He and Peg Tyre of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University are now seeking funding to start a Second Look Program.

Good news from appellate courts. The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals joins other courts in adopting the Most Liberal Reading of Habeas Time Limits and U.S. Supreme Court decision shifting sentencing from judges to juries leads to Pro-Defendant Appeals Decisions.

Report a murder. Help the police ferret out the criminals. Get charged with capital murder yourself on no evidence but the word of the actual killers. Get exonerated by sheer chance. That's how the system works in Harris County, Texas. No Apologies for Larry Monticolo

Carl Warmack writes: "I am involved in a case that I have been unable to do anything with. I served 10 years in federal prison for this crime and I have been unable to find anyone that can help obtain relief for my codefendants still in prison after 14 years with 13 more years to serve." A Case of Injustice

The California Supreme Court ruled on December 18, 2000 that the state's public defenders don't enjoy broad immunity from legal malpractice suits and can be sued for negligence just like their private counterparts. No Shield for California's Public Defenders

The families of Albert DeSalvo, who confessed to the Boston Strangler murders, and of Mary Sullivan, believed to be one of his victims, hope to prove that DeSalvo is not the Boston Strangler and that Sullivan's killer has escaped justice. After 36 years, a federal court has ordered Prosecutors to Deal with Families in Strangler Case.

When Elias Guzman appeared in court to enter the plea to armed robbery his attorney had worked out, he was heavily medicated. He insisted on his innocence and asked for a new lawyer. His lawyer's shift from defending his client to defending himself, however, was a Conflict of Interest.

"Did you stab a woman in Culpeper?" the state police detective asked. Earl Washington's answer launched the biggest mistake in Virginia's judicial system -- and landed Earl on Death Row. Missteps on the Road to Injustice

Earl Washington's case is an embarrassment to the Commonwealth of Virginia, and it should be. In 1982 police and prosecutors sent him to Death Row based on a "confession" rife with errors and inconsistencies. He was cleared by DNA three times, and finally pardoned by Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore in October, 2000. Now in a classic case of "I may not always be right, but I'm never wrong," the Virginia Parole Board has decided: No Release for Earl Washington

It was New Orleans Assistant District Attorney Lionel Lon Burns' third try to convict police officer George Lee, III of rape. Two earlier trials ended in mistrial and then a hung jury. So Burns planted evidence -- and got caught. DA Jailed for Evidence Tampering

Those looking for potential curbs on the now proverbial overzealous prosecutor might be interested in the McDade bill, which requires federal prosecutors to comply with state ethics laws. No big deal? Not quite. In August, the Oregon Supreme Court forbade all lawyers in the state to lie, or encourage others to lie, cheat, or misrepresent themselves. Under McDade, the ruling now applies to Oregon's federal prosecutors. McDade's Legacy

What are the lawyer ethics rules in your state? Click HERE for the ABA's ethics resources.

If you're convicted of a crime in Virginia, you have 21 days from the date of conviction to present new evidence of your innocence. And if you can't come up with that in 3 short weeks, you are forever barred from presenting that evidence, even if it clears you absolutely. The state legislature has failed to remedy this gaping hole in the fabric of justice. Now the Virginia Supreme Court has authorized a 21 Day Rule Study.

"When I planted a case on someone, did I feel bad?" Officer Rafael Perez asked. "Not once. I felt good."


When Officer Rafael Perez was arrested, it led to the biggest scandal in the history of the Los Angeles Police Department. Perez did what Rodney King could not do: bring the LA force under federal supervision.

One Bad Cop

41 current and former LAPD officers claim a code of silence is enforced by retaliation against those who report misconduct. They have filed a Whistleblowers' Suit.

A U.S. District Judge in Virginia has ruled that the 14th Amendment allows state prisoners to file federal lawsuits seeking DNA Testing.

While federal courts and many other jurisdictions require prosecutors to turn over police reports and other discoverable evidence, commonwealth attorneys in Virginia are pretty much setting their own policies on what they show the other side. Just try to counter criminal charges with The Paperless Defense.

How sloppy police work, a hands-off justice system and an asleep-at-the-wheel prison turned one man named Sanders into another.

My Name is not Robert

Lawyer Cheryl Pilate learned a lot in the years it took her to free Ellen Reasonover, an innocent woman convicted of murder. Pilate will never again be able to swallow the usual platitudes about how the system works, albeit tardily, undoing the unfortunate but merely careless mistakes made by police and prosecutors. She's seen how innocent people are Railroaded.

Investigators and prosecutors had no evidence against Ellen Reasonover, but that didn't stop them. They just cut deals with Snitches.

A prosecutor who conspires to fabricate evidence can be sued in a civil action for violating a defendant's constitutional rights. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decides: Prosecutor's Immunity Limited

After Herman Atkins was convicted of raping a woman in a town he had never visited--never even heard of--he fought a 13 year battle to regain his freedom. With the help of the Cardozo Innocence Project, he sought release of the physical evidence, and met the stiffest opposition yet, the DA's battle to keep him from obtaining the evidence that could clear him. It was a Worst Case Scenario

By a strong 7-2 majority, the Supreme Court on June 26, 2000 upheld the Miranda warning given by police to criminal suspects, enshrining it as part of the national culture protected by the Constitution. Dickerson v. United States

So many cases are prosecuted by the media that the jury verdicts are anticlimactic, foregone conclusions. The satirical magazine The Onion takes a look at the logical extension of this trend. It's funny ~ but only a stone's throw from the approach we already take: Murder Suspect to be Tried by Media

John Roland of the Constitution Society explains what to expect If You are Called for Jury Duty in a Criminal Trial and how YOU can make a difference as "The Fully Informed Juror"

Bill Lueders, News Editor of the Isthmus newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin asks who's to blame when prosecutors abuse their power. His answer: We all are. Cruel Zealotry

Think the LAPD and NYPD are corrupt? Over two decades, a single brutal unit of the Chicago Police Department allegedly tortured confessions out of dozens of suspects, including 10 who are now on death row. Now, some of them are finally getting another day in court. Trial by Torture

How do you address the senseless murder of a storekeeper beloved in his community? Take the word of a crack addict who says "My mind wasn't there. My mind was just about getting high." Have him finger an innocent man, then build a case out of smoke and mirrors, without regard for truth. It doesn't matter that you've charged The Wrong Man.

We know that some unbalanced people will come forward and confess to crimes they didn't commit. These walk-in false confessions bear little resemblence to the facts of the crimes, and rarely lead to prosecution. In New York, authorities have discovered a corollary phenomenon: an unbalanced individual who comes forward and claims to have witnessed crimes he never saw, and to identify innocent people as perpetrators. He has been believed. He has destroyed lives. He is a Liar.

Clay Strange of the Travis County (Texas) DA's office says, "DNA testing is not 99 percent accurate, it's 100 percent accurate, when done properly." Yet in Montgomery County and in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, being excluded—TWICE—by DNA is not enough. They have the only thing that interests them—a conviction against Roy Criner.

Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune takes a look at what happens When Innocence Isn't Enough.

The cases of Roy Criner and Earl Washington make Kinney Littlefield of the Orange County Register boiling angry that Innocence is Irrelevant.

Is this what we demand in exchange for a false sense of security?

After the death of his drinking and fishing buddy in 1985, Terry Williams of Danville, VA ~ a retarded alcoholic with a criminal record ~ dreamed that he had killed his friend. Terry made the mistake of telling the authorities about his dream. Danville sends more people to Virginia's busy executioner than any other jurisdiction in the state, and Terry soon found himself on Death Row. He came within 2 days of dying last spring when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to look at his case. And now it appears that Terry's friend died of natural causes. Access to Federal Habeas and Death Penalty for a Dream

How Jay Brocco, the quintessential middle-aged, solid-citizen kind of guy, with a good job and a loving family, got caught up in a Kafkaesque drama opposite a dogged detective intent on nailing him with a crime --"a sex crime, at that" -- that Brocco didn't commit. Wrong Man's Sex Arrest Leads to Nightmare

Police officers who pressure suspects into talking even after they've been advised of their ``right to remain silent'' can be sued for doing so, a federal appeals court has ruled. Ruling Focuses on Miranda Missteps

In most states, a knowing and voluntary guilty plea waives all nonjurisdictional error on appeal ~ a brutal fact of legal life for the innocent who opt for a plea agreement, then seek exoneration. The Texas courts have opened the door to appeals for some of these prisoners. Rule That Waives Plea Errors Canned

How does the Bill of Rights work (or not work) in today's courtroom? Criminal defense attorney and former FBI agent Timothy Clay Kulp offers insights: How the System (Really) Works.

James McCloskey, Director of Centurion Ministries, Inc., describes the factors that lead to wrongful conviction in excerpts from his law journal article: "Convicting the Innocent."

New Orleans Attorney Joan Canny was the deadlocking member of a hung jury in a murder trial. Then she joined the defense for re-trial ~ and won an acquittal. One Angry Juror

Should federal prosecutors be exempt from state ethics rules that ensure due process to other defendants who are merely suspected of criminal acts? All Powerful Prosecutors

What recourse do the wrongfully imprisoned have for the years wasted behind bars? Tough Luck for the Innocent Man examines the rule ~ Ford Heights Four Settlement looks at the rare exception.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office is not an "arm of the state" and therefore can be sued under civil rights laws for the conduct of its investigators.TCan't Use Immunity to Dodge Case.

"For the first time, the people are beginning to understand the power that prosecutors have," says Rep. William Delahunt (D-Mass.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee who is sponsoring three pieces of legislation tailored to tip the balance of power away from prosecutors and rein in abuses of authority. Grand Jury: Power Shift?

Many people can be made to confess to a crime they didn't commit under the pressure of a police interrogation, some experts charge. However, Paul Cassell, a law professor at the University of Utah and a former federal prosecutor, counters that the problem is confined to an especially vulnerable subset of the population, namely the mentally impaired. Untrue Confessions.

The S&L and bank crises of the 1980s and early '90s unleashed regulatory forces that have been compared by some to witch-hunts. Critics charge that this culture has pushed individuals and financial institutions to the wall over technicalities. Banking on Fear.

* * *

Are YOU a lawyer? Do you want to make a meaningful contribution? Join ProBono.Net! The mission of is simple. First, use information technology to increase the amount and quality of legal services provided to low income individuals and communities, and in support of the public good, by the public interest/pro bono lawyers. Second, create a virtual community of public interest lawyers in New York City that bridges the private, legal services, public interest and academic sectors of the profession and serves as a model for similar networks in other legal communities. ProBono. Net's next practice area will be criminal appeals. Get involved! Make a difference!

Truth in Justice