Components of a wrongful conviction
September 22, 2012 2 Comments
For years I have examined individual cases that were suspected wrongful convictions. Since learning about wrongful convictions in general I have come to notice common threads frequently used to weave the tangled web that contributes to such an outcome. Many of these elements are the same ones that ultimately make it so difficult to undo a wrongful conviction.
I have decided to break some of these elements down and point out specific cases where they were present. I picked five to discuss.
The Rush to Judgment
All wrongful convictions contain common themes. The first revolves around the need felt by investigators to close a particular case and bring the perceived guilty party to justice. A rush to judgment is a poor description of the process because it suggests that the wrongly accused is targeted very early in the investigation. Sometimes, this is exactly what happens. Other times, it is not. However, once the police focus on one or more suspects of particular interest the rush to judgment is imminent. It encompasses a narrow and subjective focus on all aspects of the case.
In the case of Jordan Brown, the police admitted to having spent only five hours examining the facts of the case before making the determination that an 11 year old child was responsible for the shooting of Kenzie Houk and her unborn baby. Had the police spent more time investigating the case they would have learned about her disgruntled ex-boyfriend whom she had taken out two protection orders (protection order for 2006 and protection order for 2008) against in the past.
In a rush to close the investigation, Pennsylvania police ignored the fact that no physical evidence directly linked Jordan to the crime and that there was at least one alternate suspect. There could have been more, but we may never actually know due to what transpired in that particular case.
Another wrongful conviction containing this element relates to three men who were teenagers when they were charged. Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols, and Jessie Misskelley were charged with the murders of three eight year old boys about a month after the murders occurred. However, Damien’s name was broached in the investigation the same day a search was conducted to locate the missing children. Steve Jones, a juvenile probation officer, was assisting with the search. He observed an item of clothing floating in a ditch and alerted officers. This led to the discovery of Steve Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers. When the children were located, Jones declared that Damien had finally killed someone. He also conveyed his belief the murders were the result of a cult sacrifice.
His perceptions, and those of his supervisor Jerry Driver, appeared to color the case from the start. Though there were a number of possible suspects, and leads that should have been examined more thoroughly, the West Memphis Police Department felt confident they were focusing on the right people when one of the teenagers. Jessie, confessed to the crime. Though Jessie gave incorrect information regarding the time the murders took place, elements of the crime, and other erroneous information, the police refused to apply common sense. The teenagers were subsequently convicted and spent 18 years in prison before Arkansas prosecutor Scott Ellington accepted a plea that enabled the men to go free. Damien Echols left death row as a result.
However, the killer or killers of the three boys have never been held accountable.
A rush to judgment also occurred in the case of Kirstin Blaise Lobato when the police became aware of an attack on the young woman in Las Vegas, Nevada. They received second hand information about this after Las Vegas investigators began examining the circumstances surrounding the death of a homeless man, Duran Bailey. Though Kirstin, known as Blaise, would inform investigators that the attack on her occurred a month before the man’s brutal murder, police appeared convinced of her involvement. It was a strange position for the police to maintain since witness after witness confirmed that Blaise was approximately 170 miles away from Las Vegas when the murder occurred. Additionally, after she was attacked a month before the murder she left her attacker very much alive. The date of her attack, as well as its location, did not coincide with Bailey’s murder.
There are countless other examples, but if I were to relay all of them this would cease to be a single blog entry and would threaten to become a series of non-fiction novels.
The Overzealous Investigator
All wrongful convictions have an overzealous investigator. Tim Masters was wrongfully charged with the murder of Peggy Hettrick because a detective in Colorado, Jim Broderick, was convinced of the teen’s guilt. There was no physical or eyewitness evidence connecting Tim to the murder, but Broderick persisted for many years until he was finally successful in developing a convoluted circumstantial case against Tim.
Touch DNA evidence later resulted in a judge vacating the man’s conviction. The attorney general’s office in Colorado went on to exonerate Tim. Had Broderick maintained an objective and open mind, Peggy Hettrick’s killer or killers might have been brought to justice. Now it is entirely possible that will never happen.
Overzealous investigators sometimes impede justice more than they help to facilitate it.
In the case of Darlie Routier, lead detective Jimmy Patterson relied heavily on the perceptions of crime scene consultant James Cron. Cron conducted a 25 to 30 minute walk through of the Routier home following the murder of two young children and the attack on their mother, concluding that someone inside the home perpetrated the crime. As a result, investigators narrowed their focus to the boys’ mother, Darlie, and blatantly ignored other leads. Patterson testified at trial that he did not follow up on leads such as multiple sightings of a black vehicle. This was only one of many problems with the police investigation.
Investigators who examined Kirstin Blaise’s case were not interested in the obvious differences between her description of the attempted rape a month before the murder, nor were they swayed by those who gave her an alibi. However, in other cases a single alibi witness is more then enough to cast the suspicion on to someone else. Why is it that in some cases a single alibi is sufficient, but in others ten to twenty is not? It’s a valid question.
The Botched Police Investigation
Another element commonly found in these cases is a botched or shoddy police investigation. In the case of Jason, Damien, and Jessie, police received many tips and leads pertaining to possible suspects. Two men left the state days after the murders and went to California. The West Memphis Police Department requested that the Oceanside Police Department question the men about the murders. Both men were questioned extensively and both failed a polygraph. When the Oceanside investigators suggested the men were possibly involved in the murders, the West Memphis Police Department failed to follow up.
Does it mean those men committed the crime? No. Should the police have followed up on the information? Absolutely.
The Darlie Routier case is another salient example of a botched police investigation. Multiple officers worked on the case. At trial, few officers seemed certain of what other officers did or investigated. The lead detective, Patterson, pleaded the Fifth Amendment with regard to his illegal wiretapping of the Routier children’s grave site. Pictures and video of the crime scene demonstrated the police moved objects around. It is difficult to even determine how objects appeared when investigators first arrived because various pictures show these objects in different locations.
And then there was the matter of the notes. Many officers testified they did not take notes, or that they had not brought their notes to trial. Other notes appeared to be lost or misplaced. Some notes were not signed and dated.
The crime scene was contaminated – something James Cron unwittingly admitted. Cron testified that a bloody footprint in the garage had not been there when he first arrived on the scene. He disregarded it, attributing it to one of the officers. Did it really belong to an officer? How much of the rest of the crime scene was contaminated by officers in that house? How much probative value does the blood evidence have if such contamination did occur?
A hair belonging to a female officer was found in the window frame. At Darlie’s bond hearing that hair was identified as her own. It was described as being microscopically similar to Darlie’s hair. However, later analysis showed it was not her hair and there was never any testimony about the female officer participating in the analysis of the Routier home. How did her hair get into the window frame? Why didn’t anyone even bother to ask? What other assumptions did the police make that were inaccurate?
The Win-At-All-Costs Prosecutor
Some prosecutors care about the truth. Others do not. One example is the case of Kirstin Blaise. DNA evidence exists in that case that could completely exonerate her. It could also help to determine the identity of the actual perpetrator of Bailey’s murder. However, the current District Attorney, Steven Wolfson, will not allow testing of the DNA. If he is so certain of her guilt, the DNA evidence should only serve to support that belief.
Cases of wrongful conviction – involving both juveniles and adults – all contain at least one prosecutor who appears more concerned with getting a conviction than identifying the true perpetrator of an offense. These prosecutors are not uncomfortable bringing charges against people when physical evidence does not support it. For example, the prosecutor in charge of pursuing Tim Masters could have refused to accept the circumstantial and highly questionable evidence brought forth by Broderick. However, the prosecution accepted it and moved forward with the case.
Not every prosecutor falls under this umbrella, but you are sure to find such a prosecutor while examining cases where a person has been exonerated. If you identify such a prosecutor in a case you suspect might be a wrongful conviction, you may rest assured it is a red flag suggesting there is more than meets the eye to the conviction.
The Character Assassination
In wrongful conviction cases physical evidence is always highly questionable or severely lacking. In the West Memphis Three case physical evidence that did not match the defendants was ignored. Later DNA testing made that evidence much harder to ignore, especially as the DNA testing failed to result in matches to the three men.
The police and prosecutors focused on the character of the teenagers in the hopes it would strengthen their case. They presented the teenagers as hostile and troubled individuals.
The same was done with regard to Tim Masters. The image of the introverted, angry, homicidal male teenager was conveyed to the jury. The evidence used to support this was pictures and writings.
If the pictures that a person draws or the stories that one writes truly reflect a person’s actions I think someone better put a 24/7 surveillance on people like Stephen King. If we apply this logic to him, the obvious conclusion is that he has to have a stock pile of bodies buried under his house. Actually, he’s probably too smart for that. He would know enough to bury the bodies elsewhere. But if he writes violent and gory fiction he has to be a serial killer. It’s just basic common sense, right?
The character assassination was a component in Darlie’s trial and many others who were wrongfully convicted. The words and actions of a person are twisted and skewed. Witnesses who do not like the person are called to the stand to give credence to the prosecution’s unsavory presentation of the accused.
The above components are merely five of many. There is a consistent blueprint for a wrongful conviction. It includes, but is certainly not limited to the following: a rush to judgment, a narrow and biased focus on a particular suspect, a lack of physical evidence pointing at the accused, an overzealous investigator, a botched investigation, a contaminated crime scene, at least one troubling interrogation, a prosecutor who values winning over the truth, and a carefully orchestrated character assassination in the media and/or at trial.
It does not seem that one single event or person is responsible for wrongful convictions. Instead, it is a chain of events and multiple people who allow those wrongfully accused to be tried and later convicted.
If this doesn’t scare you, maybe it should.