Wrongful convictions: The high price of justice denied
by Carol Thompson
Gary Thibodeau sits in a prison cell at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, NY waiting for a January 2015 court date to begin a hearing to determine if he will be entitled to a new trial. Thibodeau was convicted in the 1994 abduction of 18 year old Heidi Allen based on the statements of two jailhouse snitches. Thibodeau had passed a lie detector test and no evidence was found to conclude he had anything to do with the Easter Sunday kidnapping of Allen from the D&W Convenience store in New Haven, NY where she worked as a clerk.
Earlier this year federal public defender Lisa Peebles uncovered new evidence that she hopes will garner a new trial for Thibodeau, including documentation that Allen had been recruited as a confidential drug informant at the age of 16 by the Oswego County (NY) Sheriff’s Department. In a 1995 news story, it is stated that family members knew nothing about her informant status, yet sheriff reports show that two deputies had met with Allen and her parents at the time of her recruitment. Recently it was learned that an Oswego County sheriff deputy, Christopher Van Patten, had carried a card with Allen’s information and photograph and subsequently lost it near a phone booth in the parking lot of the D&W Convenience Store. The card was said to have been “immediately” found by an employee and returned to another deputy who happened to stop in the store. The details as to when the card was lost and the length of time it was lost are murky.
Witness statements also suggest that three other men were responsible for Allen’s disappearance. They claim one of the men, James “Thumper” Steen, bragged about abducting and killing Allen. Steen is in prison serving a life sentence for the 2010 murder of his estranged wife and her boyfriend.
Thomas Edward Kennedy of Kalama, Washington, was released from prison in 2012 after his daughter confessed that she had lied about being raped by her father. In 2001 Cassandra Ann Kennedy told a school counselor that her father had raped her on at least three occasions. A medical examination revealed her hymen was perforated, “consistent with genital contact with penetration.” Kennedy was charged with three counts of first-degree child rape. Her parents were divorced and Cassandra Kennedy told her mother she had made up the story the day after she testified at his trial in 2002. Both kept the secret for 10 years. Cassandra Kennedy was not charged with perjury. A judge concluded that the statute of limitations had run out and charging her could result in the apprehension of victims to report rape.
In 1984, Darryl Hunt was sentenced to life in prison for raping and murdering newspaper copy editor Deborah Sykes of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He was a 19 years old African-American and Sykes was white.
For years, Hunt’s appeals failed even when a second jury learned that a witness who helped convict him was a Klansman. Ten years into Hunt’s sentence, a DNA test failed to link him to either Sykes’ rape or murder, yet a Winston-Salem judge saw no reason for a new trial. Hunt spent 19 years in prison before a DNA match found Sykes’ real killer.
Causes of wrongful convictions
The reasons for wrongful convictions vary. The University of Michigan’s Michigan Law Innocence Clinic, which works on non-DNA exonerations, states five primary reasons for wrongful convictions, although there are other reasons as well.
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.
The National Registry of Exonerations states that to date there have been 1,460 exonerations including 20 this year. The number includes the exoneration of Pennellville, NY resident Daniel Gristwood, who served nine years for the 1996 attempted murder of his wife. Gristwood was freed from prison in 2005, two years after Mastho Davis admitted he was the man who attacked Gristwood’s wife, Christina Gristwood, with a hammer as she slept in the Gristwoods’ Clay, NY apartment in 1996.
The cost of wrongful convictions
Gristwood was awarded $5.5 million in a wrongful conviction verdict. The state of New York has appealed the verdict. Should the verdict stand, Gristwood is expected to receive upward of $7 million due to compounded interest.
In New York State compensation of the wrongly convicted is left to the discretion of the Court of Claims. Each state varies as to compensation, however, 24 states provide no compensation to those who are exonerated.
Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Washington and Wyoming have no state statutes providing financial compensation.
Those states with statutes the compensation varies from California’s $100 for each day of incarceration to a maximum of $1 million regardless of time served in Tennessee.
Separate from compensation are lawsuits filed by the exonerees in cases of intentional government misconduct, and because it is difficult to prove, only a minority of cases qualify. Prosecutors and judges have absolute immunity from lawsuits under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
The cost of lost time
For those wrongly incarcerated, it means days, months and years that can never be given back. During periods of incarceration, those wrongly convicted have missed the graduations, marriages, births and deaths of family members. Thibodeau’s wife Sharon passed away while he sat behind bars.
“All prisoners are vulnerable to psychological problems. Exonerees also struggle with the psychological dissonance of having been profoundly wronged by society,” according to an Innocence Project report.
In 2007, The New York Times researched 137 cases of those whose wrongful convictions had been overturned through DNA testing and found that most have “struggled to keep jobs, pay for health care, rebuild family times and shed the psychological effects of years of questionable or wrongful imprisonment.”
After the initial elation of freedom, the newly exonerated person must face many immediate needs including a place to live, food, clothing, medical care, a form of identification other than a prison ID card, a means of transportation and other special needs, according to the Innocence Project report. The exoneration date may have arrived without much advance notice, leaving the exoneree unprepared.
State compensation, the report notes, takes an average of three years to secure, leaving the exoneree with little or no resources. The lack of credit leaves them unable to secure housing and health insurance.
Despite compensation, not all exonerees adapt to life outside prison. Roy Brown received $2.6 million for the 15 years he spent behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit. Brown attracted national news coverage in January 2007 when he was released from the Elmira, NY state prison. DNA evidence proved not only that he didn’t murder Cayuga County, NY social worker Sabina Kulakowski in May 1991 near Auburn, NY but that another man did. Brown himself tracked down previously undisclosed statements that pointed to the real killer, Barry Bench. After Brown wrote Bench a letter accusing him of the murder in 2003, Bench killed himself by standing in front of an oncoming train.
Brown was fearful that he would never see the money because of liver disease. He was expected to only live a few more months, however, four months following his release he was given a liver transplant.
Brown spent his money freely, purchasing and elaborate home and vehicles, including a limo. But two years into his new life, Brown was charged with a felony for possessing heroin with the intent to sell.
Although all prisoners are entitled to healthcare, The American Public Health Association published a 2009 report concludes, “Many inmates with a serious chronic physical illness fail to receive care while incarcerated.”
States face challenges due to the increasing number of prison inmates and the aging inmate population. The PEW Charitable Trust found that prison health care spending in these 44 states totaled $6.5 billion in 2008, out of $36.8 billion in overall institutional correctional expenditures.
While Thibodeau is being represented by a federal public defender, many states have organizations to assist those who have been wrongly convicted. Some work only with cases that have DNA evidence, others will work on cases where there is no DNA evidence.
Last month, U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. announced the creation of a Conviction Integrity Unit in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, promising a vigorous effort to identify and investigate cases that resulted in wrongful convictions. The unit also will make recommendations about ways to improve training, investigations and prosecution practices to ensure the integrity of future convictions.
The announcement follows a four-year review by the U.S. Attorney’s Office of more than 2,000 files involving FBI analysis of hair or fiber evidence. That review was done in the wake of the exoneration of Donald Gates, who was convicted in 1982 of a rape and murder in part on the basis of testimony involving hair evidence. DNA testing – which was not available at the time of Mr. Gates’s trial — proved in 2009 that he was not the perpetrator.
In Thibodeau’s case there was no DNA evidence, nor any physical evidence, linking him to the crime. Allen’s body has never been found and Thibodeau never confessed to the crime. The conviction became noteworthy because of the lack of evidence.