Thursday, 27 March 2008

Wrongfully Convicted by an Inaccurate Eyewitness

Julius Earl Ruffin (middle) was released from prison in 2003 after spending 21 years in jail for a crime he did not commit. (Vicki Cronis/The Virginian-Pilot)

Eyewitness Testimony Frequently Wrong, ABC News Experiment Puts Witnesses to the Test
March 25, 2008

Julius Earl Ruffin knows all too well how inaccurate eyewitness identification can be.
On May 3, 1982, in a Norfolk, Va. circuit court, the 29-year-old was convicted of a rape that he did not commit and was sentenced to five life sentences.

The case rested solely on the testimony of the victim, Ann Meng, a young mother of three who confidently pointed to Ruffin as her assailant.

Twenty-one years would pass before Ruffin was able to prove his innocence with DNA evidence. He details his experiences in the book "Why Me? When It Could've Been You!"
Watch the story on "Primetime" tonight at 10 p.m. ET

Ruffin's story is not unusual. In fact, according to the Innocence Project, a non-profit organization that assists prisoners who can be proven innocent with DNA testing, mistaken eyewitness identifications contributed to more than 75 percent of the more than 200 wrongful convictions in the United States that have been overturned on the basis of DNA evidence.
"Primetime" wanted to see what would happen if we set up scenarios where we asked onlookers to identify the person involved in a purse snatching.

We hired actors to play the role of the victim and the thief. Because scientific research has found that race plays a significant role in the accuracy of a witness' ability to identify a perpetrator, we chose three different actors for the experiment: a Caucasian, an African-American, and a Hispanic.

Along the edge of Atlanta's Piedmont Park we positioned seven hidden cameras at Willy's Mexicana to capture the scene from every possible angle. The customers were unaware of what was about to interrupt a leisurely weekend lunch at the outdoor cafe.

In the first scenario Justin, the white actor playing the "thief," walked up to Elizabeth, the "victim," and asked if she had a pen that he could borrow, explaining that he needed to write down a phone number. And then, suddenly his whole demeanor changed.
"Give me your purse! Sit down! Don't move!" he barked at her. Justin quickly grabbed the handbag and ran away.

Elizabeth was horrified and asked the other customers if they saw anything, knowing she'd need witnesses to help pick out the thief.

At that point ABC News correspondent John Quinones walked over to let people know that what just happened was not an actual robbery but instead an experiment about eyewitness identification. John asked the people to describe the thief.

Eyewitness Memory

Joe Donnelly recalled that "he had blond hair, had a hat on, about 35, 6 feet 1 inch."
But William Stark described him as "late 20's, white male … I would guess 5 feet 10 inches maybe."

Both were certain they could pick him out of a lineup.
But when we showed the videotape of the experiment and the bystanders' reactions to Professor Jennifer Dysart of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a psychologist who consults on criminal cases, she was doubtful.

"Eyewitness memory … does have its downfalls though, in that it is particularly susceptible to influences and biases," she said.
To test this idea we put together a line-up with six headshots of different Caucasian men, including Justin's, and showed it to the customers from Willy's Mexicana who represented many different races and ages.

We asked why they chose the photos they did.

William Stark noticed Justin's facial features and his hat, but added, "It's not so much that I recognize him exactly, but I tried to eliminate the ones that I strongly felt were not the guy."
It's exactly that kind of strategy that can lead to faulty identifications, according to Dysart.
"The lineup is supposed to be a memory test for the witness," she said. "And so therefore if you look at this particular lineup, this six-pack, you see it's almost like a multiple choice question … this tends to be the type of procedure that leads to inaccurate choices."

It's one reason this type of line-up is widely criticized.

Dwayne Winrow, a customer who came very close to the robber, was so sure about his choice that he claimed he "would probably go as far as to press charges."
But even though Winrow seemed very certain he chose the right person, it turned out that he was 100 percent wrong. Dysart cautions that "eyewitness certainty or confidence doesn't necessarily predict how accurate a witness is going to be."

ABC's results show just how faulty eyewitness accounts can be: 25 percent of the customers got it wrong; they identified someone other than the actor Justin as the thief. Those are not good odds when one's freedom is at stake.

Cross-Racial Identification

The next set-up involved Aemon, a black actor. It was a perfect example of what happens during cross-racial identification — when someone of one race is asked to pick out someone of another race.

Amazingly, during the line-up every single one of the black eyewitnesses correctly identified the African-American "thief." One customer, Landon Williams recalled a key characteristic: his facial hair.

"I remember the hair that he had, the lower lip, it had connected to his beard," he said.
But most of the whites got it wrong. Seventy percent chose someone other than Aemon.
There's an interesting explanation for why the whites did so poorly and why the blacks did so well. It has to do with the particular details we notice and remember to describe when looking at people.

Dysart explained "that we tend to look maybe at the wrong cues. And so, for example, a white person would probably look at someone's hair and eye color. Unfortunately, that's not very helpful if they're being asked to distinguish amongst black people or Asians, in which hair color and eye color really doesn't vary too much. "

Scientists at Stanford University wanted to look at what actually happens in the brain during cross-racial identification and what they found is fascinating.

They took brain scans of 19 subjects while they were shown more than 100 pictures of Caucasian and African-American faces. Later they were shown some individual faces that were part of the previous group and asked if they had seen them before.

The images produced by the brain scans showed that when a white person looked at another white face, the area of the brain responsible for facial recognition lit up, indicating that it is active, the Stanford scientists said. CLICK HERE to view the image.

But when the white subject was shown a black individual's face, a much smaller area of the brain was highlighted and identification by the white person was less likely to occur, they said.

Perhaps this partly explains why eyewitness identification tends to be wrong.
In experiments no one suffers the consequences of a misidentification. But in Julius Earl Ruffin's case he paid dearly.

Still, he sees the bigger picture. He forgave his accuser but he cannot forgive the system that relied on her testimony.
"I'd been in prison 21 years, you know? For a crime I didn't commit, and … what had happened had happened, and I still felt like that it was a mistake, you know? It had to be a mistake," Ruffin said. "And, she didn't make it by herself. The judicial system had something to do with it also, you know."

CLICK HERE to visit The Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

For wrongfully incarcerated, 'clean hands' is dirty pool

Imagine having been convicted of a major felony and spending 20 years — that's more than 175,000 hours — knowing that you didn't do the crime and hoping and praying the truth eventually will come out.

Finally, miraculously, you're cleared. DNA evidence, most likely, is what would have determined your innocence beyond a reasonable doubt.

Meantime, whatever might have been left of your life when you went to prison is probably gone. Certainly whatever you might have made of your life is probably gone, too, or at least long delayed. Like starting a family.

Doesn't the state owe you something?

Most public policy issues involve a fair amount of gray. But there's little gray when it comes to state policy regarding payment of compensation to a person who has been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for a crime he never committed.

Florida lawmakers, in the wake of several recent cases involving former inmates whose innocence was proven by DNA testing, are debating how wrongfully imprisoned people should be paid for the time they spent behind bars.

Currently, such inmates can be compensated only if a special claims bill on his behalf passes the Legislature. The current debate is whether, and how, to standardize the process. That serves the cause of justice especially because technological improvements are certain to increase the number of cases of imprisonment that are proven to be in error.

Alan Crotzer, formerly of Tampa, formerly a guest of the Florida Department of Corrections for 24 years, now a resident of Tallahassee, almost made it to the finish line last year when he sought $1.25 million. But his claims bill, after being passed by the House, died in the Senate.

Mr. Crotzer is back again this session, and Gov. Charlie Crist is prominently in his corner.

But while his bill is given excellent chances of making it through this year, other legislation designed to comprehensively address the problem has already gotten traction — but deserves to be derailed.

The so-called "clean hands" provision in House Bill 1025 would prohibit automatic compensation for wrongfully convicted inmates if they had a previous felony on their record. Ex-prisoners who fit that description would have to go through the legislative claims process similar to the one that Mr. Crotzer is navigating for the second consecutive year. The process "retraumatizes" the former inmates, an advocate for them said earlier this month, forcing them to grovel and, in their minds, reprove their innocence when science already has done that.

If "clean hands" becomes law, it would actually keep the state's hands dirty. If you spend time in prison for a crime you didn't commit, the state should pay you back — and not hold your compensation hostage for something unrelated. Our judicial system has always worked that way, not bringing forward to a jury information about previous rap-sheet behavior not related to the charges at hand.

No question, automatic compensation might be politically difficult to accept in some cases and this year's debate may be just the beginning of reckoning with fairness issues in this era when DNA science trumps human judgment. And of course, wrongfully convicted inmates are not always altar boys. But if they have been convicted of and served their sentences for previous crimes, they ought not be held accountable forever for crimes that it has been proven they did not commit.


Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Consensus on Counting the Innocent: We Can’t

Justice Antonin Scalia


Published: March 25, 2008

A couple of years ago, Justice Antonin Scalia, concurring in a Supreme Court death penalty decision, took stock of the American criminal justice system and pronounced himself satisfied. The rate at which innocent people are convicted of felonies is, he said, less than three-hundredths of 1 percent — .027 percent, to be exact.

That rate, he said, is acceptable. “One cannot have a system of criminal punishment without accepting the possibility that someone will be punished mistakenly,” he wrote. “That is a truism, not a revelation.”

But there is reason to question Justice Scalia’s math. He had, citing the methodology of an Oregon prosecutor, divided an estimate of the number of exonerated prisoners, almost all of them in murder and rape cases, by the total of all felony convictions.

“By this logic,” Samuel R. Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan, wrote in a response to be published in this year’s Annual Review of Law and Social Science, “we could estimate the proportion of baseball players who’ve used steroids by dividing the number of major league players who’ve been caught by the total of all baseball players at all levels: major league, minor league, semipro, college and Little League — and maybe throwing in football and basketball players as well.”

Joshua Marquis, the Oregon prosecutor cited by Justice Scalia, granted the logic of Professor Gross’s critique but not his conclusion.

“He correctly points out,” Mr. Marquis, the district attorney in Clatsop County, Ore., said of Professor Gross, “that rape and murders are only a small percentage of all crimes, but then has absolutely no real data to suggest there are epidemic false convictions in, say, burglary cases.”
What the debate demonstrates is that we know almost nothing about the number of innocent people in prison. That is because any effort to estimate it involves extrapolation from just two numbers, neither one satisfactory.

There have been 214 exonerations based on DNA evidence, almost all of them in rape cases, according to the Innocence Project at the Cardozo School of Law. But there is no obvious control group to measure these exonerations against.

Virginia, though, has discovered thousands of closed rape files from 1973 through 1988, many with untested biological evidence. DNA testing of a preliminary sample of 31 of them yielded two wrongful convictions. Those numbers are too small to be reliable, of course, but they would suggest a false conviction rate of 6 percent.

Even that rate may be low, said Shawn Armbrust, the executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project. Ms. Armbrust said investigators in Virginia were able to get results in only 22 of the 31 tests, suggesting a false conviction rate of 9 percent.

The other important number comes from death row. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 127 death row inmates have been exonerated.

Here we do have a control group. There have been more than 7,000 death sentences since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

But exoneration in the capital context is a funny concept. It suggests complete vindication, but its real meaning is generally narrower.

DNA evidence in a rape case can provide something like categorical proof of innocence. Death row exonerations, on the other hand, can be based on all sorts of things, like, say, prosecutorial misconduct. In other words, it is possible to wrongfully convict a guilty defendant.

Mr. Marquis, the Oregon prosecutor cited by Justice Scalia, says the number of authentic death row exonerations is more like 30. Many people exonerated in the legal sense, he said, in fact committed the crime but could not be proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Professor Gross thinks the number of guilty people released from death row is very small.
Professor Gross concluded that the false conviction rate for death row inmates has ranged from 2.3 percent to 5 percent. Were even the lower end of that range applied to people who received prison sentences of a year or more in the last three decades, he wrote, it would suggest that about 185,000 innocent people have served hard time.

But extrapolating from capital crimes to felonies generally is problematic whatever the number of exonerations.

On the one hand, there is some reason to think that homicide cases yield what Justice David H. Souter, dissenting in that same death penalty decision two years ago, called “an unusually high incidence of false conviction, probably owing to the combined difficulty of investigating without help from the victim, intense pressure to get convictions in homicide cases and the corresponding incentive for the guilty to frame the innocent.”

On the other, as Justice Scalia responded, capital cases “are given especially close scrutiny at every level.”

We are left with an uneasy agreement between Professor Gross and Mr. Marquis on at least one point. “Once we move beyond murder and rape cases,” Professor Gross wrote, “we know very little about any aspect of false conviction.”

But a few general lessons can be drawn nonetheless. Black men are more likely to be falsely convicted of rape than are white men, particularly if the victim is white. Juveniles are more likely to confess falsely to murder. Exonerated defendants are less likely to have serious criminal records. People who maintain their innocence are more likely to be innocent. The longer it takes to solve a crime, the more likely the defendant is not guilty.

Justice Scalia, for his part, focused on what he saw as good news. “Reversal of an erroneous conviction,” he wrote, “demonstrates not the failure of the system but its success.”
Online: Documents and an archive of Adam Liptak’s articles:


Adam Liptak’s column about the legal world appears on Tuesdays. Columnist Page »

Santa Clara University: Northern California Innocence Project Hosts Inaugural Justice for All Awards Dinner

Monday March 24, 2:14 pm ET

SANTA CLARA, Calif.--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Santa Clara University’s Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP) will host its inaugural Justice for All Awards Dinner on March 27, honoring individuals for their work on behalf of the wrongfully convicted. The awards dinner comes on the eve of the 2008 Innocence Network Conference which will be held at Santa Clara University March 28–30.

“The Justice for All Awards Dinner provides the opportunity for our supporters to meet the exonerees whose lives they have touched, hear their stories, and see firsthand why the Innocence Project fights tirelessly for justice,” said Kathleen “Cookie” Ridolfi, director of the Northern California Innocence Project.

Inaugural Justice for All Awards Dinner, March 27: This event will be held at the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose on March 27 and will honor five individuals for their work on behalf of the wrongfully convicted. Award recipients are Frank Quattrone, NCIP’s Advisory Board Chair; John Van de Kamp, chair of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice; exoneree Antoine Goff; and Dana Nachman and Don Hardy, local documentary filmmakers who worked closely with the NCIP on their film “An American Witch Hunt.” Attorney Barry Scheck will give the keynote address.

2008 Innocence Network Conference, March 28–30: The national conference will take place this year at Santa Clara University, home base of the NCIP. The three-day conference brings together hundreds of people who work against wrongful convictions.

Among those attending the conference are attorneys, educators, civic and business leaders, and exonerated individuals who have been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. John Van de Kamp, former state attorney general, will participate in the conference, along with speakers representing Innocence Projects from Hawaii, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, New York, and New Orleans, including the co-founders of the first Innocence Project, professors Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld of Cardozo School of Law. Conference sessions are closed to the media. Photos will be available following the conference. For more information about the conference or photos, please contact Amy Kennedy at 408-551-3000 x6189 or

Hearing on the Death Penalty, March 28: The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice will be holding its third and final public hearing at Santa Clara University from 9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. The hearing will address the fair administration of the death penalty in California. Visit the commission’s Web site at for more information.

About Santa Clara University

Santa Clara University, a comprehensive Jesuit, Catholic university located 40 miles south of San Francisco in California’s Silicon Valley, offers its 8,685 students rigorous undergraduate curricula in arts and sciences, business, and engineering, plus master’s and law degrees and engineering Ph.D.s. Distinguished nationally by one of the highest graduation rates among all U.S. master’s universities, California’s oldest operating higher-education institution demonstrates faith-inspired values of ethics and social justice. For more information, see

Santa Clara University
Karen Crocker Snell, 408-554-5126
Media Relations

Source: Santa Clara University

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Wrongly accused man free after 25 years

Willie Green said he "would never ponder harming anyone" after working for civil rights in Mississippi.

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Willie Earl Green walked out of a California courtroom as a free man Thursday after serving nearly 25 years in prison for the execution-style murder of a Los Angeles woman, which he insists he never committed.

A Los Angeles judge set the graying 56-year-old free after ruling that the prosecution's star witness, Willie Finley, lied to a jury during key portions of his original testimony. Finley recently recanted his story.

Green, who earned a college degree while at California's San Quentin State Prison, said he was "humbled" by his release.

"Today is a glorious day," he said. "It's a great day. I never gave up on this day. I knew one day this day would come.

"I never asked for mercy. I only asked for justice to be served, and it was served today."

"Good Friday arrived early for my husband," said Green's wife, Mary.

Green had been serving 33 years to life for the murder, burglary and robbery of Denise "Dee Dee" Walker, 25, at a Los Angeles crack house in 1983.

Based on Superior Court Judge Stephen Marcus' ruling, Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Hyman Sisman told the court, his office would not pursue a new trial.

After his release, Green and his wife embraced.

"It's real," she said as her husband's eyes teared up. "I'm fine now. This is the second best day of my life. The best was the day I married you."

In February, Green proclaimed his innocence to CNN's documentary unit during an interview inside his prison cell at San Quentin.

"I was once a freedom marcher in Mississippi fighting for civil rights and social justice during the Martin Luther King Jr. era," he said. "I would never ponder harming anyone, let alone kill a human being, after spending my early life fighting for nonviolent social change the way King taught us."

Walker was killed August 9, 1983. According to court documents, the single mother had been preparing crack cocaine in Finley's kitchen when a man dragged Finley inside the home after pistol-whipping him on a sidewalk.

Within moments, a second intruder entered a back door of the apartment with a sawed-off shotgun. Finley testified that the newcomer beat him again with the shotgun. After stealing money from a bedroom, the second intruder returned to the kitchen, exchanged weapons with his accomplice and left, according to court documents.

Moments later, Finley testified, he heard the first suspect yell to Walker, "you're the only one who knows me," followed by multiple shotgun blasts. But instead of calling for help as Walker lay dying with multiple gunshot wounds to the chest, Finley scoured his house for drugs the gunmen missed, documents state.

A month later, Finley was arrested and charged with selling drugs. At that time, police showed him mug shots of possible suspects in the Walker case, but Finley was unable to identify anyone.

According to court documents, the case appeared stalled until Walker's mother told police that her daughter had been the victim of an assault and robbery a year earlier. Two men had been arrested in that case: Willie Green and his cousin, who was Walker's companion at the time. Both men pleaded guilty to grand theft of a television set.

On the night of Walker's murder, Green's cousin was in prison.

Green, who had briefly lived at Walker's apartment a year earlier, told police he was in the San Fernando Valley at the time of the murder. But he also had no one to corroborate his alibi.

Detectives interviewed Finley again in jail, showing him additional photographs of possible suspects, this time including Green. By that time, Finley had been informed about Green's prior encounter with Walker and tentatively identified him as the second intruder, according to court documents. At a live lineup, Finley selected Green as the second intruder.

During his testimony, Finley identified Green as the second intruder, claiming he heard Denise Walker scream "Willie." Prosecutors cited Walker's use of the name as crucial evidence that she was referring to Willie Green, because most of Willie Finley's friends called him Doug.

However, Los Angeles police detectives found no evidence connecting Green to the crime scene, according to court documents.

In his ruling Thursday, Marcus said the relationship between Walker and Green probably played a significant role in the jury's decision to convict. Finley now says it was the primary reason he identified Green in the photo lineup.

Marcus noted that Finley had failed to reveal that he suffered from hemophilia and that his vision had been impaired after the two beatings on the day of the killing.

Marcus also said that Finley lied when he said he was not under the influence of cocaine at the time of the murder or when he was testifying.

Walker's case has never been solved.

After his release, Green said he wasn't bitter about his experience.

"I don't hate anybody," he said. "I don't hate Willie Finley for doing what he did. I forgive him, too."

Green, who said he'd never even met Finley, said it was unfortunate that he'd spent so much time behind bars while Walker's real killers went free.

"Everybody's talking about me," he said. "But nobody's talking about the victim. She didn't get any justice. Me being locked up for 25 years didn't give her any justice."

All About CrimeLos Angeles

Friday, 21 March 2008

Please Sign Petition to Compensate Pennsylvania Exonerees

Greetings All,

Please sign and pass on this petition so Pennsylvania's Exonerated can recieve financial compensation for the years they spent in prison wrongfully convicted. You support is appreciated. It is important to give your name, city, state.

Harold C. Wilson
Striving to Make a Difference

The petition

The purpose of this petition is to ask for your support and to demonstrate to the PA Legislators that a Compensation Bill for the exonerated is supported by the constituency. We need bipartisan legislative support.

Currently there are bills in the Pennsylvania Legislature House of Representatives and Senate to compensate exonerated prisoners. These bills are written to compensate exonerated persons in Pennsylvania.

House of Representative Bill is HB 765 and Senate Bill SB 714.

These bills outline the following compensation.

(b) Damages.--If the court finds that the claimant was
4 wrongfully convicted and imprisoned, it shall award damages as
5 follows:
6 (1) not less than $50,000 for each year of
7 incarceration, with an additional $50,000 for each year for years served on Death Row.

I entreat all that receive this petition to sign it in support of compensating the wrongfully convicted. Help rectify what has been suffered by the wrongfully convicted. Please include your county, city, and state. I request that you pass this petition on, you support is desperately needed.

Sign the petition
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Petition sponsor
My name is Harold C. Wilson. I am the 122nd Exonerated Death Row Prisoner in the United States and the 6th Exonerated Death Row Prisoner in Pennsylvania. On November 15, 2005 after spending over 17 years wrongfully convicted on Pennsylvania's Death Row, I was released with $.65 and a bus token from prison. My Death Warrant was signed twice by the Governor of Pennsylvania. I was aquitted by DNA evidence and witness testimony. Pennsylvania exonerees have not been compensated for this hideous tragedy against us and our families. Please support this fight.