On November 16, University of Louisville’s Brandeis School of Law was the site where some of the best legal, political and academic professionals in the US, each passionate about improving quality justice for all, gathered to advance the cause in Kentucky. This program wasn’t about taking sides: it was about drawing together a broad representation of stakeholders from the criminal justice system, including Supreme Court Justices, circuit judges, district judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, court administrators, policy agency officials, the clergy, and law students.
Ms. Rebecca Brown, Policy Analyst for The Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, is involved in reform movements on a nationwide basis. She highlighted the systemic issues as she introduced each of the presenters. These speakers not only brought with them a message that everyone can appreciate and understand, but they also delivered it in a way that let the stakeholders see just how crucial that message is for the state.
The opening speaker, Ms. Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, is a rape victim whose eye witness identification in two different trials convicted the wrong man. She spoke emotionally and frankly about her experiences as a victim in the criminal justice system, highlighting her overwhelming sense of shame and guilt upon learning that the man she wrongly identified as her rapist, Mr. Ronald Cotton, was exonerated by a DNA test. She and Mr. Cotton, who have since become close friends, have co-written a book together, “Picking Cotton.” Ms. Thompson-Cannino shares her story regularly to express the urgent need for reform in eyewitness identification. Traveling across the country as an advocate for sweeping policy changes, Thompson-Cannino commented about a California proposal, “If Senate Bill 762 can help fix the system by putting better practices and procedures into place for eye witness identification, we reduce the risk of wrongful convictions and mistakes like the one I made. A mistake I never saw coming. “
Conversely, Mr. Herman May, who at the age of 17 was convicted of a rape he did not commit, candidly shared his 13-year journey from desperation to freedom as Kentucky’s first Innocence Project exoneree. Post-conviction DNA testing vacated and set aside his conviction that was based largely on eye witness identification, a common problem in sexual assault cases. May is not angry or bitter anymore and holds no ill will toward the victim who identified him as the perpetrator. “I realized she had been through a terrible ordeal and I hope she’s living the best life she can,” he said. He also discussed the disparity of exoneree’s vs. parolee’s rights and services. To date he has not received any compensation for his 13 years of wrongful incarceration, nor does he have the same access as parolees to rehabilitation services, such as vocational training, assistance in finding housing or employment, etc. Like so many other exonerees, Mr. Mays has yet to hear an apology from the state for the mistake that stole his most formidable years while incarcerated. Struggling to put the past behind him and focus on his wife and young children, Mr. May said, “Everything’s changed…I had to start over. I wish I had the years back, but I’ve got to move on. I can’t live in the past or I won’t have any life at all.”
These stories demonstrate how things can go terribly wrong in our justice system. The good news is that major strides are being made every day to improve it. In the area of proper forensic evidence preservation, Major Kevin Wittman of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, SC Police Department presented information about the pressing need to take care of the very DNA evidence used to resolve both Ms. Thompson-Canninon’s and Mr. May’s cases. Using his department’s evidence storage facility as a model, Major Wittman compared it to the all-too-common problems in over-crowded evidence facilities in which evidence is often compromised by water damage, mold, decay and even animal droppings. Mishandled, improperly labeled and co-mingled pieces of evidence also hinder justice in many jurisdictions across the US, especially in cold cases.
Researchers state that 80% of wrongful convictions are due to eyewitness error, even when the victims are adamant the suspect is the perpetrator. One such researcher, Professor Gary Wells of Iowa State University, is regarded as a leading forensic expert in eyewitness identification and has helped develop models used by different states and law enforcement agencies to minimize common errors. He explained that problems in suspect lineups, as well as layers of memory, cross-gender and cross-race effects all contribute to the fallibility of eyewitness identification. Reforms are being drafted now based on Professor Wells’ and others’ research showing that basic changes, such as the adoption of blind and sequential lineups, will dramatically improve eye witness identifications in criminal cases.
These and other advancements offer hope for change only if they are adapted into our criminal justice system. Mr. Keith Findley, co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, shared examples of proposed reforms that are slowly yet dramatically changing the faulty processes that often lead to wrongful convictions. As more wrongly convicted persons are exonerated, the proof that reform is needed will continue to fuel the momentum generated by the Innocence Projects across the country.
By sponsoring the Advancing Justice Conference, the forensic experts at DNA Diagnostics Center supports the belief that the criminal justice system, while not broken, can certainly be improved. To date, 208 people have been exonerated by DNA evidence, and many lessons have been learned from these exonerations. We at DDC were proud to support the Advancing Justice Conference that focused on the need to apply those lessons so that no one has to experience prison life for a crime they did not commit.