Unreliable Convictions

Article originally published here
Beniah Dandridge Exonerated and Released After 20 Years Wrongly Imprisoned in Alabama
Beniah Dandridge Exonerated and Released After 20 Years Wrongly Imprisoned in Alabama

There are more innocent people in our jails and prisons today than ever before. While the rate of exonerations has been increasingly dramatically for several years, and a record 149 people were exonerated in 2015, experts observe that, “ by any reasonable accounting, there are tens of thousands of false convictions each year across the country, and many more that have accumulated over the decades.”

Since 1989, 337 people have been exonerated through DNA evidence, revealing a system replete with defects that have led to tens of thousands of wrongful convictions. Leading causes of wrongful convictions include mistaken eyewitness identifications, false or misleading forensic science, false confessions, and jailhouse informants. Perjury or false accusations have contributed to more than half of wrongful convictions, and nearly half involve misconduct by government officials.

Exonerations continue to expose as junk science a number of forensic techniques—such as hair microscopy, bite mark comparisons, firearm tool mark analysis, and shoe print comparisons—that have never been scientifically evaluated or validated. Negligent or corrupt forensic laboratories have been exposed for improperly conducting tests, inaccurately conveying results in trial testimony, and fabricating results. In 2015, EJI won the exoneration and release of Anthony Ray Hinton, who spent 30 years on Alabama’s death row after being wrongfully convicted of capital murder based on a faulty bullet match, and Beniah Dandridge, who spent 20 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted based on a faulty fingerprint match.

The indigent defense crisis undermines the reliability of convictions; overworked, underfunded defense lawyers lack the resources to vigorously test the prosecution’s evidence at trial. Children and people with mental disabilities are especially vulnerable. EJI won the release of Diane Tucker, an intellectually disabled woman wrongfully convicted of murdering an infant, after obtaining medical evidence that proved the baby never existed. Jurisdictions do not uniformly preserve evidence or provide access to forensic testing that could prove an incarcerated person’s innocence, and even when incarcerated people manage to obtain evidence that proves innocence, prosecutors and law enforcement often refuse to re-examine the evidence or re-open the case. Some prosecutors have formed Conviction Integrity Units to prevent, identify, and correct false convictions, but only 24 of these units existed in 2015, and of those, half have not secured a single exoneration.

When Defense Lawyers Become Prosecutors

By J. Celso Castro Alves, Truthout | News Analysis

Scales of Justice weigh heavily against Defendants in Alabama

In theory, a public defender’s mission includes dedicated advocacy for clients against whom the power of the carceral state is mobilised. In theory, a public defender’s mission includes dedicated advocacy for clients against whom the power of the carceral state is mobilized. However, in practice, defenders sometimes end up working with the forces of power — and against the best interests of their clients. (Photo: Pixabay)

On January 5, 2015, Randall H. McCants Jr. was not alone when Judge James H. Roberts Jr. of the Sixth Judicial Circuit of the State of Alabama opened his courtroom for a plea hearing. “Mr. McCants is present in court with his attorneys, Jim Gentry and Mike Cartee,” he stated. Besides the judge’s reference to McCants’ court-appointed attorneys by their nicknames, nothing appeared out of the ordinary. Roberts cited McCants’ constitutional rights before highlighting his defense attorneys’ central task: “Your attorneys are bound to do everything they can honorably and reasonably do to see that you obtain a fair and impartial trial.” McCants answered the judge’s questions with “yes, sir” and “no, sir.” Even to the charge of capital murder and the question of whether he understood that “the range of punishment is life without parole or death,” McCants responded, “yes, sir.”

According to the nine-page hearing transcript, Roberts knew that McCants had pled not-guilty during his post-arrest arraignment in January 2011. In fact, Roberts acknowledged that McCants’ attorneys had only recently “proposed a plea agreement” for the “lesser offence of murder.” Yet, at no point during the hearing did Roberts wonder about what prompted McCants’ sudden about-face. Did four mysterious years in pretrial detention impact McCants’ decision? Could McCants’ attorneys have coerced him to plead guilty by invoking fear that a greater punishment awaited him at trial? Whether McCants was mentally competent to grasp legal proceedings or understand that he was assuming full responsibility for the accidental death of a Tuscaloosa resident apparently did not cross Roberts’ mind either.

Rather, Judge Roberts proceeded with the plea colloquy by asking prosecutor Jonathan S. Cross to provide “some facts” for the first-degree murder plea. Compliant, Cross stood and delivered some skimpy facts in the most casual and sloppy fashion possible:

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