FBI Conducts Review of Hair Microscopy Cases

July 23rd, 2013

The FBI, in partnership with the Innocence Project and the National Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), has agreed to review over 2,000 criminal cases in which the microscopic analysis of hair samples may have been a deciding factor in a conviction. This is the next step in an ongoing investigation of over 20,000 cases from between 1985 and 2000 that were referred to the hair microscopy unit of the FBI labs. The date range was chosen in order to examine cases with computerized records and where DNA testing was unlikely to have already been completed. By 2000, DNA testing was routinely used instead or in conjunction with hair microscopy to provide more definitive results. Cases in this review involve individuals on death row who currently have set execution dates, as well as people who have already died in prison.

Hair microscopy is simply a qualitative analysis by forensic experts of multiple known and unknown hair samples at a very high magnification (40x-400x) under a microscope. According to Special Agent Ann Todd, a spokesperson for the FBI, they maintain that hair microscopy is “…a valid forensic technique and one that is still conducted at the lab,” but their willingness to undergo this unprecedented review process, as well as the history of wrongful convictions based on hair analysis, shows that the value of these types of observations may have been overstated in many cases. The review has already identified as many as 27 people on death row who were falsely implicated based on the exaggerated veracity of hair microscopy during trial.

While this review is a great victory for the cause of eliminating wrongful conviction in our justice system, it is only the tip of the iceberg. The cases under review by the FBI are limited to federal cases, but 95% of violent crimes are handled by state and local authorities and up to 1,000 state and local investigators have been trained by FBI investigators to apply the same standards. Undaunted by the scale of the problem, the co-director of the Innocence project, Peter Neufeld, is optimistic about the implications of the FBI’s cooperation in this review, saying that it “…signals a new era in this country that values science and recognizes that truth and justice should triumph over procedural obstacles.” Results from the review are expected by the end of the summer.

Read more:

Dennis Maher’s Freedomversary

June 14th, 2013

On Sunday, April 28 The New England Innocence Project celebrated the 10th anniversary of Dennis Maher’s exoneration. The gathering took place at the Tewksbury Wilmington Elks Club in Tewksbury, Massachusetts. The event was a huge success with over 50 guests attending, including the NEIP staff, Dennis Maher’s friends and family, and other individuals involved in his exoneration including Jay Carney, the prosecuting attorney who originally convicted him. The celebration included games and raffles for the children in attendance as well as a silent auction to raise proceeds for The New England Innocence Project and The Children’s Glaucoma Foundation.

In 1983, Dennis, a former sergeant in the U.S. Army was wrongfully sentenced to 20 to 30 years in prison. Ten years ago he was exonerated through DNA evidence after serving 19 years of his sentence for crime he did not commit. Currently Dennis is happily married with two children and works full time. He is dedicated to promoting awareness about wrongful convictions by sharing his own story.

We would like to thank everyone who helped made the celebration a success and to Dennis and his family for allowing us to celebrate with them.

NEIP Team Attends Network Conference

May 3rd, 2013

Seven current and former NEIP staff members attended the Innocence Network Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina April 19-21. The Innocence Network is comprised of 63 independent organizations around the world who work to free the wrongfully convicted. Member Projects cover different geographical areas and have different case criteria. Some Projects will only take cases with DNA evidence, while others will accept cases where there is no DNA. NEIP will examine cases with no DNA where scientific testing or other investigative leads could establish a strong likelihood that an individual is factually innocent. Learn more about the Innocence Network here: http://www.innocencenetwork.org/

It was wonderful to meet so many inspiring people and to hear their stories. There were over 500 attendees, including 100 exonerees, at this year’s conference. The Network Conference provides an opportunity to foster community among exonerees and those who work on innocence issues. NEIP case assistant Cassie Macaione reflects on the weekend: “This year’s Innocence Network Conference was a great opportunity to meet people from all over the world who share the same passion as we do here at NEIP. The skills that I learned over the course of the weekend will truly help me throughout the course of my academic and professional years to come. I am so glad to be part of such an amazing community of people.” The Network Conference is the largest gathering of its kind and allows different Projects to come together and learn from one another. Local radio station WUNC 91.5 was at the conference and spoke with exonerees Audrey Edmonds and Bennie Starks about the struggles they have faced to clear their names. Joining them were Innocence Netowork President Keith Findley and Innocence Project attorney Vanessa Potkin. Listen to the piece here.

NEIP was also excited to honor Norwood Police Chief Bill Brooks, this year’s winner of the Innocence Network’s Champion of Justice Award. The award is given to public servants who go above and beyond in their efforts to free the wrongly convicted or reform the criminal justice system to prevent wrongful convictions. Chief Brooks has been a police academy instructor for over 25 years and a presenter on eyewitness identification for five years. He has partnered with many members of the Innocence Network and made a tremendous impact on eyewitness identification and other innocence-related reforms. He has traveled the country speaking to a range of criminal justice stakeholders and has trained thousands of members of law enforcement personnel on scientifically supported best practices related to eyewitness identification. NEIP is partnering with Bill Brooks and the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police to collect and analyze eyewitness identification procedures from police departments across the state. In conjunction with a SJC Study Group on Eyewitness Identification, the project aims to understand the prevalence of reform based policies containing best practices for eyewitness identification in the state of Massachusetts and explore ways to expand their use. This work will be used to help influence a new model policy regarding eyewitness identification that will be issued later in 2013.

Aidan’s Pub Fundraiser Big Success

April 11th, 2013

Monday, April 1 marked the first annual fundraiser at Aidan’s Pub in Bristol, Rhode Island to benefit the New England Innocence Project. We want to thank everyone who helped us to make the fundraiser such a big success! Betty Anne Waters spoke about her efforts to clear her brother Kenny’s name and secure his freedom. In an emotional talk, Dennis Maher spoke about the 19 years he spent in prison for a crime he did not commit before being cleared by DNA evidence. April 1, the date of the fundraiser, was the 10-year anniversary of when Dennis received the call from his attorney telling him that he would be going home.

We want to thank the law students at Roger Williams University Law School who helped to make the event a reality. The night was a huge success that we hope to make an annual tradition!

Exoneree Fernando Bermudez to Speak at Princeton University

March 1st, 2013

Exoneree Fernando Bermudez will be speaking at Princeton University on Wednesday, March 6 at 4:30. Fernando was exonerated in 2009 after spending 18 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Despite the lack of any physical evidence tying him to the scene of the crime, Fernando was convicted based on eyewitness identification and sentenced to 23 years-life. After five of the original eyewitnesses recanted their statements, a judge vacated the conviction on grounds of actual innocence. Fernando now lives in Connecticut with his family and speaks regularly about his experiences.

Read a 2007 NYT in-depth investigation of the case here.

NEIP Bids Goodbye to Executive Director Gretchen Bennett

January 14th, 2013

After nearly four years with NEIP, Executive Director Gretchen Bennett has resigned to pursue other opportunities. Gretchen began with NEIP in March 2009 as a part-time Project Coordinator, and became its first full-time Project Coordinator in February 2010. In November 2010, recognizing the scope of responsibilities the Project Coordinator held, NEIP’s Board formally designated her NEIP’s first Executive Director. Gretchen led NEIP into securing its first grant, expanding its mission beyond DNA cases and into a key partnership with the Committee for Public Counsel Services’ Innocence Litigation Unit. NEIP’s Board and supporters thank her for her valuable work on behalf of NEIP.

Staff Attorney Criselda Ruiz will be serving as Interim Executive Director.

NEIP Board Member Profiled in Boston Globe Magazine

December 12th, 2012

The Boston Globe’s Sunday Magazine profiled NEIP Board of Trustee member David Meier for his work on the Massachusetts drug lab scandal. Meier was appointed by Governor Deval Patrick to oversee the review of thousands of cases that may be called into question by the scandal. As of late November, Meier’s team had identified 10,000 of the 34,000 people who may have had drug evidence in their cases analyzed by Dookhan. Of those 10,000, the priority is the 2,000 people who are currently in incarcerated on potentially faulty evidence.

Throughout his career, Meier has shown a strong desire to see justice achieved. During his time as a prosecutor, he helped to free several people who had been wrongfully convicted, in addition to putting criminals behind bars.

Read the full article about David Meier here.

Marvin Schechter appears on NPR

December 5th, 2012

Marvin Schechter was a guest on NPR’s “The Take Away” Monday morning to discuss the situation with Annie Dookhan at the Hinton Crime Lab. Marvin was a co-author of 2009’s groundbreaking National Academies of Science report critiquing the current state of forensic science in the United States. He has also presented at NEIP trainings about the NAS Report and forensic science.

Major problems have emerged at the Hinton State Crime Lab located in Jamaica Plain after evidence emerged that a chemist working in the lab since 2003 was not following lab protocols and in some cases, may have deliberately tampered with evidence. Reports suggest that chemist Annie Dookhan worked on over 60,000 samples potentially affecting up to 34,000 criminal cases.

Willingham’s Family Seeks Posthumous Pardon

October 25th, 2012

Twenty years ago, Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted of starting the fire that consumed his home and killed his three young daughters. On October 24, 2012 members of Willingham’s family filed a petition with the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles asking them to posthumously clear his name. The validity of Willingham’s conviction was called into question after advances made in arson science showed that the fire was based on flawed forensics. Despite evidence of his innocence, Willingham was executed for the crime on February 17, 2004. He always maintained his innocence.

You can read an in-depth investigation of Willingham’s case here.

Read more about advances in arson science on our website.

NEIP Holds 2nd Annual Exoneree Picnic!

October 11th, 2012

NEIP hosted a picnic for New England exonerees and their families on Sunday, October 7th at our new office right off the Boston Common. New England exonerees and their families joined NEIP staff for a day of food, games and discussion. This is the second annual exoneree picnic. Guests in attendance included Dennis Maher, who spent 19 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, and Betty Anne Waters, who put herself through law school to prove her brother Kenneth’s innocence. The event was designed to give exonerees the chance to discuss their struggles and successes adjusting to life after being freed from prison.

While some exonerees have found jobs, started families and bought houses, many struggle with the lack of resources available to help them transition to life on the outside. People who are proved innocent are often not eligible for the same post-release services available to people who are released after they complete their prison terms.

NEIP provides pro bono legal assistance to inmates who have claims of actual innocence. The New England Innocence Project’s mission is to represent persons wrongly convicted in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island or Vermont and to advocate for the reform of our criminal justice system. It is the New England Innocence Project’s vision that no one in New England will ever go to prison for a crime he or she did not commit.

Please consider making a donation so that we can continue to fulfill our mission of helping the wrongly convicted in New England.

Update- NEIP Board Member Chosen to Lead Review of Cases in Crime Lab Scandal

September 27th, 2012

Updated 9/28/12
This afternoon former lab technician Annie Dookhan was arrested at her home in Franklin following a lengthy investigation into her mishandling of evidence at a Jamaica Plain drug laboratory. She is expected to be arraigned this afternoon in Boston Municipal Court on two felony counts of obstruction of justice and one misdemeanor count of falsifying her academic record. NEIP is continuing to follow the situation and will update information as we receive it.

Originally posted 9/27/12
Major problems have emerged at the Hinton State Crime Lab located in Jamaica Plain after evidence emerged that a chemist working in the lab since 2003 was not following lab protocols and in some cases, may have deliberately tampered with evidence. Reports suggest that chemist Annie Dookhan worked on over 60,000 samples potentially affecting up to 34,000 criminal cases. By September 23, at least 11 defendants awaiting trial in drug cases had been set free due to the unreliability of the evidence used to convict them.

NEIP Board of trustee member David Meier has been appointed by Governor Deval Patrick to head a committee tasked with reviewing and identifying cases linked to Dookhan’s work. Meier worked as a prosecutor in Suffolk and Middlesex counties for 20 years before working as a defense attorney for the Boston firm Todd & Weld LLP. During his time as prosecutor, he helped overturn the wrongful convictions of Donnell Johnson and Marlon Passley.

Meier announced that up to 1,150 convictions could be called into question based on problems in the crime lab. These convictions represent defendants who were convicted of crimes based on the drug evidence analyzed by Dookhan, and who still remain incarcerated for those crimes in state prison or county jail. In the coming days and weeks, Meier’s team will work to identify others incarcerated in federal prison, those in jail waiting to be tried and people who have been freed on bail.

NEIP will continue to follow this story and report on developments.

Problems Emerge at Massachusetts Forensics Lab

August 31st, 2012

State police closed the Hinton State Laboratory on Thursday at the direction of Governor Deval Patrick after evidence surfaced that a chemist working at the lab routinely failed to follow testing protocols. This breach of protocol could affect thousands of criminal cases where the chemist’s potentially faulty results contributed to convictions. Workers in the lab would investigate drug evidence collected by police from all over the state. These tests would certify whether substances seized by police were in fact illegal drugs.

State police spokesperson David Procopio indicated that the chemist may have gone further than disregarding protocols stating, “This is more than just allegations of sloppiness and cutting corners. The allegations include malfeasance, deliberate mishandling… We are concerned that in some of the cases, there’s a likelihood that justice was not served, that a defendant did not get a fair trial and that it’s possible that people may be incarcerated unjustly.” We will continue to monitor this story as it develops.

Freeing Bernie Baran

August 30th, 2012

Available now on Amazon Instant Video, this documentary chronicles the story of Bernard Baran, a Pittsfield, MA native who was wrongfully convicted of child molestation during the day care sex abuse hysteria of the late eighties and early nineties. The film offers a glimpse into wrongful conviction, how it is carried out from start to finish, and the effect it has on the innocent and their families. The film premiered in 2010 at the Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival, with reviewers describing the film as “achingly beautiful,” adding that “it will make you angry but leave you with hope.” Bernard Baran was freed with the assistance of attorney John Swomley. The New England Innocence Project is proud to consider him a part of the NEIP family. NEIP has been pleased to have him join us at various NEIP events such as the Exoneree Picnic and Annual Innocence Network Conference, and we congratulate him on the release of this film.

If you click this link to buy or rent the documentary, NEIP will receive a portion of your purchase!

Vermont Man Walks Free After 18 Years

August 24th, 2012

John Grega with his family immediately following his release. 

Case Update 

Vermont Man Freed After Spending 18 Years in Prison for a Crime He Did Not Commit

Earlier this week, John Grega was finally released from prison, after serving 18 years in prison for a crime he has always maintained that he did not commit. Gretchen Bennett, NEIP’s Executive Director, and Vermont attorney, Ian Carleton, joined the Grega family to greet Mr. Grega as he walked free for the first time in almost two decades.

Mr. Grega was convicted in 1995 of killing his wife while they were on a family vacation with their 2 ½ year old son in West Dover, Vermont. Mr. Grega had no criminal record and no history of violence or mental illness, but police soon focused on him as a suspect in his wife’s murder. There were no witnesses to the crime and no physical evidence introduced at trial; Mr. Grega was convicted on circumstantial evidence alone and was the first person in Vermont’s history to receive a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

On September 2, 2011 the Superior Court of Vermont directed the State to test previously untested biological samples. On May 14, 2012 the Vermont Forensic Laboratory concluded that John Grega was excluded as the source of the major contributor of DNA in the most relevant sample. Prosecutors working on the case agreed that in light of the recent DNA results, Mr. Grega is entitled to a new trial.

John Grega has been released on bail and will stay with his mother under a conditional release until the possible new trial.

NEIP will continue to work with attorney Ian Carleton to clear Mr. Grega’s name and secure his unconditional release.

Texas Arson Review Finds Potential Innocence Cases

August 17th, 2012

Last fall the Innocence Project of Texas and the State Fire Marshall’s office teamed up to review over 1,000 fires previously determined to be arson. The review was spurred by a report from the Texas Forensic Science Commission published last fall which cast serious doubt on Cameron Todd Willingham’s 1992 arson conviction due to flawed forensic science that was used to convict him. Willingham was convicted of setting a fire that killed his three young children. Despite questions about the veracity of his conviction, Willingham was executed in 2004 for the crime. The review of old arson cases seeks to identify other cases where people may have been convicted due to the same outdated and unvalidated forensic science that led to Willingham’s conviction.

So far Jeff Blackburn, Director of the Innocence Project of Texas, and his team have identified 26 potential innocence cases. The team will continue to review the cases and in some, may file for habeas relief. They project that between 10 and 15 cases will merit litigation. Blackburn describes three cases that raise red flags:
“One case, from 1999, involves a fire that happened in a mobile home. The model of mobile home was apparently later recalled for having wiring and electrical problems that led to fires. The state’s case was made by a local fire marshal who testified that in his opinion accelerants had to have been used. Another case involves a victim with a history of sleepwalking and sleep apnea who, according to the defendant – his wife – knocked over a candle. Again, the testimony of the local expert carried the state’s case but it seems to be based on outmoded science. Yet another conviction involves an arson murder in a home that was located close to a ruptured gas line.”

Despite concerns that the review might be too ambitious of an undertaking, the IP of Texas and the State Fire Marshall’s office have made significant process since they began reviewing cases last fall. Stay tuned for new details as the review progresses.

Read a DISCOVER magazine article explaining how our understanding of fire science has evolved over time.
Read a PBS FRONTLINE story about the current review in Texas.

Vermont’s First DNA Exclusion

July 25th, 2012

The New England Innocence Project supports John Grega’s claims of innocence in light of recent DNA results excluding him as the perpetrator. NEIP is joining with his attorney Ian Carleton in calling for his immediate release and declaration of innocence.

John Grega has served 18 years in prison and has always maintained that he did not commit the crime for which he is imprisoned. Tuesday afternoon Vermont attorney, Ian Carleton, filed a motion in Windham Superior Court asking the court to overturn the conviction of Mr. Grega. NEIP has been consulting with Mr. Carleton on Mr. Grega’s case since February 2011. Mr. Grega was convicted in 1995 of killing his wife while they were on a family vacation with their 2 ½ year old son in West Dover, Vermont. Mr. Grega had no criminal record and no history of violence or mental illness, but police soon focused on him as a suspect in his wife’s murder. There were no witnesses to the crime and no physical evidence introduced at trial; Mr. Grega was convicted on circumstantial evidence alone and was the first person in Vermont’s history to receive a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

On September 2, 2011 the Superior Court of Vermont directed the State to test previously untested biological samples. On May 14, 2012 the Vermont Forensic Laboratory concluded that John Grega was excluded as the source of the major contributor of DNA in the most relevant sample.

NEIP is encouraging the court to swiftly overturn Mr. Grega’s conviction based on this exculpatory evidence. Mr. Grega has served 18 years for a crime that he did not commit and NEIP is working with Mr. Grega’s attorney Ian Carleton to secure his release.

New Legislation Introduced to Strengthen Forensic Science Reform

July 19th, 2012

We are very excited to report that two new bills were introduced last week that are intended to strengthen forensic science reform in the United States. Senator John (Jay) Rockefeller, the Chair of the Commerce Committee, introduced S. 3378 called, “The Forensic Science and Standards Act of 2012”and Representative Eddie Johnson introduced companion legislation, H. R. 6106 in the House of Representatives. Both proposed pieces of legislation are designed to address problems with the way forensic science is collected and analyzed in the United States. The National Academies of Science issued a report in 2009 called, “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward” which identified deficiencies with the current state of forensic science issued a set of recommendations to improve the discipline. One important component of the bills is that they incorporate the NAS Report’s recommendation to implement national forensic standards.

Unvalidated forensic science is one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions. The proposed legislation comes the same week that the Department of Justice and FBI announced that they would re-review thousands of old cases with potentially faulty forensic evidence. We hope that this legislation can help prevent future wrongful convictions based on unvalidated forensic science.

Read more about the new bills here.

The Department of Justice and FBI to Re-Examine Forensics in Thousands of Old Cases

July 13th, 2012

The Justice Department and the FBI will begin reviewing thousands of old cases that contain potentially faulty forensic evidence including hair and fiber analysis. The Washington Post published a story in April revealing that the Justice Department knew for years that many people had been convicted on potentially flawed forensic evidence analyzed by the FBI as far back as 1985, but had not done a thorough review of those cases. Hair and fiber analysis is subjective to the examiner who is performing the comparison. The technique is not grounded in scientific research and can have a high error rate. You can read more about the accuracy of various types of forensic science here.

In 1978 Santae Tribble was convicted of killing a taxi driver. Three years later Kirk Odom was convicted of a sexual assault. In both cases FBI hair analyst testimony wrongly linked the men to the crime scenes. Tribble’s conviction was vacated this spring and prosecutors moved this week to overturn Odom’s conviction. The upcoming review will examine cases involving hair and fiber experts from the FBI and focus on cases where their testimony resulted in a conviction. The goal of the review will be to identify other potentially innocent people who were convicted based on unvalidated forensic science.

National Registry of Exonerations Released Today

May 21st, 2012

Since 1989, more than 2,000 people have been victims of wrongful conviction in felony cases.  Now nearly 900 of these exonerations are profiled, with searchable data and summaries of the cases on the National Registry of Exonerations, a new joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University.  The Registry, available at exonerationregistry.org, will be updated on an ongoing basis.  This is the most comprehensive database of its kind.  We hope that the insights gained into the causes and patterns of wrongful conviction will provide policy and decision makers the information they need to make continuous improvements to the criminal justice system.

The National Registry of Exonerations has released an inaugural report detailing the exonerations from 1989-May 2012.  You can download a pdf of it here: Exonerations in the United States, 1989 – 2012.

To view more details on specific exonerations in New England, visit the links below:
27 exonerations in Massachusetts.
3 MA federal exonerations.  Includes the recent case of James Hebshie, exonerated last year for the crime of arson.
7 exonerations in Connecticut.
1 exoneration in New Hampshire.
2 exonerations in Rhode Island.