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Milwaukee Criminal Defense Law Blog

Bad forensic evidence convicted him. Now he's out on parole.

Joe Bryan has not been exonerated, but there is good reason to believe he was wrongfully convicted of the 1985 murder of his wife, Mickey. Bryan was convicted twice despite having been at a conference 120 miles away at the time of the murder. He has served 33 years in prison.

The main evidence against Bryan was an analysis of bloodstain patterns -- a forensic technique that many experts seriously question. Nevertheless, bloodstain pattern analysis continues to be relied upon in Bryan's case and in others throughout the criminal justice system.

You should fear a geofence warrant even if you did nothing wrong

It's easy for law enforcement to overreach their powers in their efforts to stop crime. As the police use ever-more-intrusive methods for tracking people, they often raise the argument that the innocent people caught up in their dragnets have nothing to fear.

The fact remains that dragnets inherently scoop up the innocent along with the potentially guilty. And increasingly, law enforcement around the U.S. has been using a new kind of dragnet called a "geofence warrant."

Does registering and banning people actually prevent crime?

Although we're not from New York City, we can agree that there is probably too much public lewdness and unwanted touching going on in the city's subways. Earlier this month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a plan to clean up public transit: banning "repeat and high-risk sexual offenders" from buses, trains and subways for three years.

Cuomo has described banning sex offenders on the subway "common sense." But is it?

Mistaken eyewitness IDs occurred in nearly 70% of exonerations

According to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, evidence from eyewitnesses is "a unique threat to the fairness of trial." She cited research that found eyewitness misidentifications to be the "single greatest cause" of wrongful convictions in the United States.

Bad eyewitness identifications put innocent people in prison. There are many reasons why they happen, and some of them can be prevented.

Do pretrial risk assessment tools produce good results?

It's a travesty when people are stuck behind bars for months or even years before they have even been convicted of a crime. However, there are sometimes good reasons to deny a person bail, such as when they are an obvious flight risk or a clear danger to the community.

Many jurisdictions around the U.S. are using pretrial assessment tools to help decide whether people are safe to release before trial. Ideally, these tools would accurately gauge a person's likelihood of flight or of committing a new offense if released. Ideally, they would be less biased than judges have proven to be. Ideally, they would reduce the jurisdiction's reliance on cash bail and pretrial incarceration.

How could $145 million improve forensic science?

"I think we can safely say that bite mark evidence is just junk," says Michael Semanchik of the California Innocence Project. He speaks with some authority, as he has worked for many years on the exoneration of Bill Richards, who was falsely convicted of his wife's 1993 murder.

Richards' story began when he came home from work one night to find his half-naked wife dead on the ground outside their home in California. According to The Outline, it took three 911 calls to get police to come investigate and, even then, it wasn't until almost three hours later that homicide detectives showed up.

'Perfect storm' of injustice overturned in wrongful conviction

"Theophalis Wilson, you are free to go," said a Philadelphia judge recently. She was releasing a man who has been exonerated of the three 1989 killings he was convicted of as a teenager.

According to the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, the case was a "perfect storm" of injustice, marred not only by prosecutorial misconduct, but also by a lying witness and an ineffective defense. Wilson has spent 28 years behind bars.

Three ways prosecutors use coercion in plea bargaining

Plea bargaining is a bedrock of our criminal justice system. Governments simply don't have the money to take every criminal defendant to trial. They rely on the fact that a large proportion of defendants will opt for a plea deal if it means less prison time.

Our criminal justice system assumes from beginning to end, however, that people who agree to plead guilty are actually guilty. They are not given much due process and their appeals are very limited.

Follow the evidence when evaluating sex offender registries

To many, sex offender registries seem like a good way to prevent people from committing repeat sex offenses, thereby keeping the public safer.

Many believe that people who have committed sex offenses in the past are much more likely to commit them in the future. However punitive and life-altering it may be to be placed on a sex offender registry, they say, registries are the best way to keep the public safe from sex offenses. Over time, the theory goes, sex offenses should go down overall as more and more offenders are placed on the registry.

Many cops believe they can use this tool to test people for lying

Scientifically, it's a pipe dream. It would be convenient if we could train law enforcement officers on how to tell if people are lying, but so far there is no way to do so. That doesn't stop people from trying, though.

We've discussed lie detector tests before. In theory, polygraphs measure changes in breathing, blood pressure and skin conductivity, tracking allegedly tell-tale signs of lying. In reality, polygraphs may be no more accurate than chance, especially depending on the operator. Worse, they are prone to false positives, making it seem that people are lying when they are not.

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