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Exoneration of wrongly convicted reaches record high
January 29, 2015  //  By:   //  Legal  //  No Comment

by Carol Thompson

The National Registry of Exonerations has reported the number of wrongly convicted exonerations has reached a record high.

According to the organization, there were 125 exonerations in 2014. The previous highest total was 91 in 2012 and again in 2013, followed by 87 in 2001.  There have been 1,535 exonerations in the United States from 1989 though January 2015.

There were 27 states with exonerations last year, with the most in Texas, New York and Illinois, according to the Registry, a project of the University of Michigan Law School. 

Six defendants who had been sentenced to death were exonerated in 2014, the most since 2009. Each had been in prison for 30 years or more.

According to the report, 67 of the known exonerations in 2014, or 54 percent, were obtained at the initiative or with the cooperation of law enforcement- the highest annual number of exonerations with law enforcement cooperation.

Evidence that frees a prisoner may include DNA linking another person to the crime and evidence of perjury. In one case, Ohio native Ricky Jackson spent 39 years in prison for murder – making him the longest-held U.S. prisoner to be exonerated. He was freed last November after the witness admitted he hadn’t seen the crime.

As previously reported, the six most common reasons for wrongful conviction include:

Eyewitness Misidentification: Eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide. Research shows that the human mind is not like a tape recorder; we neither record events exactly as we see them, nor recall them like a tape that has been rewound. Instead, witness memory is like any other evidence at a crime scene; it must be preserved carefully and retrieved methodically, or it can be contaminated.

Junk Science: Many forensic testing methods have been applied with little or no scientific validation and with inadequate assessments of their significance or reliability. As a result, forensic analysts sometimes testify in cases without a proper scientific basis for their findings. And in some cases, forensic analysts have engaged in misconduct.

False Confessions: In many cases, innocent defendants make incriminating statements, deliver outright confessions, or plead guilty. Regardless of the age, capacity, or state of the confessor, what they often have in common is a decision—at some point during the interrogation process—that confessing will be more beneficial to them than continuing to maintain their innocence.

Government Misconduct: In some cases, government officials take steps to ensure that a defendant is convicted despite weak evidence or even clear proof of innocence.

Snitches: Often, statements from people with incentives to testify—particularly incentives that are not disclosed to the jury—are the central evidence in convicting an innocent person. People have been wrongfully convicted in cases in which snitches are paid to testify or receive favors in return for their testimony.

Bad Lawyering: The failure of overworked lawyers to investigate, call witnesses, or prepare for trial has led to the conviction of innocent people.

For the family of Gary Thibodeau, they are hoping a Brady hearing will result in a new trial. Thibodeau was convicted of  the 1994 kidnapping 18-year-old Heidi Allen from a convenience store located in upstate New York. Thibodeau was convicted despite any evidence to implicate him. He passed a lie detector test and had no previous association with the victim. Withheld from his trail was the fact that Allen had been working for the Oswego County Sheriff’s Department as a confidential drug informant. It was only recently disclosed that then-deputy Christopher Van Patten had been carrying her informant information, along with a picture of Allen, and had lost it in the same convenience store parking lot that Allen had been abducted from.

The hearing, which is now underway, has gained national attention and has pointed to many other inconsistencies with the investigation conducted by the Oswego County Sheriff’s Department, the lead agency on the case.

It could be months before a judge renders a decision.

Image: Flickr/ Ray (rayphua)

About the Author :

Carol Thompson is a veteran investigative reporter residing in central New York. She spent 23 years with a local newspaper, The Valley News, before leaving for the Syracuse New Times, and now, VNN. Thompson has won dozens of first-place awards for investigative reporting and was the 2006 recipient of the Syracuse Press Club’s prestigious Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award. Thompson’s reporting has resulted in the arrest of public officials and has prompted policy changes. She uncovered two money laundering schemes that traveled the globe and resulted in the indictments of several developers.