Sunday, May 20, 2012
Alabama ranks 14th in false sex crime convictions
Exoneration lists expose causes for wrong convictions in Jefferson County and across nation
Published: Sunday, May 20, 2012, 10:30 AM
Five men from Jefferson County and 12 others convicted but later cleared in Alabama courts are listed on a new national exoneration registry designed to highlight the issue of wrongful convictions and explain why they happen.
The registry, compiled by the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, profiles 873 cases from January 1989 through February 2012. The registry will be made available to the public online starting Monday.
Each convicted defendant was later cleared through DNA, confession by the real criminal or other circumstances. Most involved murder and sexual assault cases.
The cases highlight the legal pitfalls that can lead to wrong convictions, said authors of a study based on the registry, Samuel Gross and Michael Shaffer.
"The more we learn about false convictions, the better we'll be at preventing them -- or if that fails, finding and correcting them as best we can after the fact," Gross said in a statement.
The study found that bad eyewitness testimony was a factor in 94 percent of the exonerations, either because a person mistakenly identified the defendant or lied to put him behind bars.
Alabama, with one federal and 16 state exonerations on the registry, ranked 14th nationally for total false convictions. Broken down per capita, Alabama ranked 10th nationally, according to the report.
But the study's authors said the numbers can be misleading, because states like Alabama, Illinois and Michigan with larger Death Row populations and organizations dedicated to ferret out wrongly-convicted people will be disproportionately represented.
Also, cases such as homicide and sexual assault, which often involve DNA evidence and result in longer sentences, are more likely to provide the means and time needed to prove the wrong person was convicted, the study found.
Nearly 6 in 10 of the people on the registry were cleared by DNA. It took an average of 12 years from conviction and 13 years from arrest for them to find justice, the study found.
Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said he has confidence in the integrity of state criminal proceedings.
"The many safeguards in place provide sufficient opportunity to correct the very few errors that are made," he said in a statement. "Sixteen errors out of tens of thousands of convictions does not indicate a systemic problem but rather supports the high degree of accuracy in our proceedings."
The study's authors concluded the actual number of wrong convictions is much higher.
Gross and Shaffer intentionally defined exoneration narrowly, only listing on the registry cases the authors identified in which a court, prosecutor, or governor found post-conviction evidence of innocence persuasive enough to drop the charge, release the defendant, order a new trial that resulted in acquittal or issue a pardon.
"It is clear that the exonerations we found are the tip of an iceberg," said Gross, a University of Michigan law professor and editor of the registry. "Most people who are falsely convicted are not exonerated; they serve their time or die in prison. And when they are exonerated, a lot of times it happens quietly."
More than 90 percent of the exonerated defendants are male. Half are black.
About 15 percent of the exonerations involved people who confessed to crimes they did not commit. Often these were juveniles or mentally-disabled defendants, the study found.
The study also found the main factors behind wrong convictions varied by crime:
Murder: Perjury or false accusations were found in nearly two-thirds of those exonerations. Official misconduct, from suggestive interview techniques to fabrication of evidence, also was found in more than half of those cases.
Adult sexual assaults: Mistaken witness identification was involved 80 percent of the time, and was especially prevalent when victim and defendant were different races. Nearly 4 in 10 cases also involved false or misleading forensic evidence.
Child sex abuse: The accuser most often made up the crime, the study found. Official misconduct also was found in more than one-third of the cases.
Many child-abuse exonerations stemmed from what the authors called the "hysteria cases" of the 1980s and 1990s. They included prosecutions such as the McMartin Preschool case in California in which several adults were charged with molesting dozens of children in what proved to be false accusations.
Robbery: Mistaken eyewitness identification was found in 80 percent of those exonerations.
Gross and Shaffer said the justice system needs to be more careful that mistakes are not made on the front end, and more open to genuine evidence of innocence post conviction. Alabama's attorney general, however, said the courts provide sufficient safeguards to correct genuine mistakes.
"The courts remain open to considering strong evidence of actual innocence," Strange said. "Oftentimes, post conviction courts are flooded with weak theories of innocence rather than actual evidence supporting innocence."
Here are the cases of five men convicted in Jefferson County Circuit Court who are listed in a new national registry of exonerations:
Freddie Lee Gaines: Charged in a 1973 double homicide, he was acquitted in one death and convicted in the other. Gaines was released for good behavior after 11 years in prison. Five years later, in 1990, another man confessed to the crimes. Gaines received $1 million in state compensation, but was not pardoned until 2005.
Dale and Ronnie Mahan: Convicted of a 1984 kidnapping and rape, Dale was sentenced in Bessemer to 35 years and Ronnie received life without parole as a habitual offender. They were released after nearly 14 years when testing that was not available before trial showed they did not leave DNA found on the victim. She still maintained she was attacked by two men, but admitted she had sex with a man other than her husband earlier that day.
Louis Griffin: After his arrest on federal racketeering charges, the New York street gang member took credit for a 1992 drug-debt slaying in Birmingham. But when he and another man went on trial in Birmingham in 1997, Griffin said he made it all up to get a lighter sentence in his federal case. Both men were convicted, with Griffin getting a death sentence and the other man a life term. Griffin won a new trial in 2000 and was acquitted in 2001, but went to federal prison for the racketeering case.
Wesley Quick: Charged in the 1995 shooting deaths of two teens near Pinson, his first prosecution ended in mistrial due to juror misconduct. He was convicted and sentenced to death in 1997, but won a new trial and was acquitted in 2003. The trial judge then sentenced Quick to 76 years in prison after he pleaded guilty to three burglaries, including one in which the murder weapon was stolen.