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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The Forgotten

I sit back and watch things that go on. I use to stand up at the injustices and the wrongs done by officers, but retaliation against me for so long, i say nothing. I wonder if we are forgotten, or does society even care that we suffer abuse behind bars. There are plenty of female inmates that are here for drug convictions or robbery or theft of property and a lot get out after 5 years or less and keep breaking the law and keep coming back to prison.

The Forgotten - an inmates statement regarding the criminal judicial system in Alabama.
The Forgotten – an inmates statement regarding the criminal judicial system in Alabama and how it treats “violent female offenders” versus the “non-violent repeat offenders”.

And there are plenty of us who are here for defending our lives or that of our children, and by taking a life that was a threat to us or our loved ones, we forfeit our freedom and removed from our families. We are rarely ever given another chance at living in society, yet we are the ones who won’t commit another crime and keep returning to prison. We are not the ones society should fear. We don’t get high on drugs and break into your home to steal.

We are guilty of murdering one who was threatening to kill us. On those rare occasions when we are given another chance at society, we don’t come back, we don’t prey on society. We appreciate our new freedom because we have lost so much. Society shouldn’t worry about female violent offenders. 9 times out of 10, the person we killed was an abusive husband or boyfriend. It’s easy to judge us, but until your life or your children’s life has been threatened, you have no idea what you are capable of doing. The ones society should worry about granting parole to and the ones who get a slap on the hand with light sentences are the nonviolent offenders, society drug users and drug dealers. Society should fear these women. They will prey on your Mom & Dad, your sister and brother, your grand parents, your children.

The prison door is a revolving door for them. For us who are here for murder in self defence, serve our whole sentences and are rarely granted parole and those with life sentences end up dying in prison. We are locked up and forgotten and yet we are the least dangerous, the least of society’s worries.

Transcribed by admin, inmates name withheld in fear of retaliation

 

Animals are treated better than us

Every morning, Monday – Friday all 300 of us gets kicked out of the dorm at 7am so a few inmates can clean the front of the dorm and our bathroom. We are left outside till 08.30 and 9am. We only have 14 tables that will sit roughly 70 inmates. The rest of us have to sit on the ground. We get kicked out while its cold and even if the ground and tables are soaking wet from rain. The only time we don’t get kicked out is if its below 32°f.

Statement form an inmate highlighting the daily routine in Montgomery Women's Facility
Statement form an inmate highlighting the daily routine in Montgomery Women’s Facility

They don’t take into consideration of the wind chill. During the summer we have no shade and are forced to be in the sun for 2 hrs. We clean our own living areas yet we’re forced outside when its wet, cold, windy or when its hot and humid. The officers start yelling at us at 06:15 to get in compliance and to get out. Yet regs state compliance time is 08:00 but we are forced at 07:00. The officers snicker and think its funny that they herd us out.

Our roof leaks in over a dozen spots. We have to move our 300lbs beds when it rains, so we won’t get rained on. Once again, we live in worse conditions than animals.

On 3rd shift, which is 22:00 to 06:00 they torture us with the lights. They won’t turn the lights off till 23:30 or 00:00, then they cut them back on at 01:00 to count, then again at 03:00 and they remain on all morning. We are sleep deprived.

On our pill line, there are over 70 of us, yet the officers will call everyone up there at one time creating a cluster of people blocking aisles. Some of us will go as the pill line goes down to about 15 inmates, yet the officers will prevent us from getting our meds, saying we are late to pill line. Yet how can i be late to pill line, when pill line is still going? The night before last, a Sgt. actually wrote up an inmate for taking her medicine after she came to pill line, when the line still had 10 inmates in line. We are not to be refused our meds, yet we are at Montgomery Women’s Facility.

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Why you should care about ensuring defendants get a fair trial

By Kira Fonteneau, Jefferson County Public Defender

On March 18, 1963, in “Gideon v. Wainwright,” the United States Supreme Court recognized that people who are charged with crimes are entitled to legal counsel even if they cannot afford to pay for it themselves. By upholding the constitutional right to an attorney, the Court empowered the justice system as a whole.

Kira Fonteneau, Jefferson County Public Defender c/o Kira Fonteneau
Kira Fonteneau, Jefferson County Public Defender c/o Kira Fonteneau

“Our state and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on procedural and substantive safeguards designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law,” declared Justice Hugo Black, an Alabama native, in the court’s opinion. “This noble ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.”

Since Gideon, a generation of lawyers and other professionals have worked tirelessly to defend clients who would otherwise be crushed under the weight of the criminal justice system.

As lawyers who represent the poor in Alabama, we know that many people have mixed feelings about the role criminal defense lawyers play in society.  It can be hard for the public to separate an individual from the grievous crimes he is accused of by the government. All too often, that societal distrust of alleged criminals is extended toward the people who defend them. As a result, there is a natural tendency to downplay the importance of providing a quality defense to those who are accused.

Justice is only possible when it is extended to all parties in the criminal system.

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