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Milwaukee Criminal Defense Law Blog

Police steered eyewitness ID, leading to wrongful conviction

When Francisco Carrillo, Jr., was falsely convicted of a fatal drive-by shooting, it was the result of an improper eyewitness identification. A Sheriff's deputy brought in the 15-year-old eyewitness, showed him a single photo and said it was their lead suspect.

Showing an eyewitness a single suspect, however, can easily lead the witness. Very often, people are unsure of their ability to recognize the suspect and will take cues from the police. Even when people are confident in their memories, studies have demonstrated that police influence can mislead them into choosing the targeted suspect.

Investigators misidentified another man as 'Golden State Killer'

Recently, investigators in California arrested a suspect in the "Golden State Killer" case. Joseph James DeAngelo, a former police officer, is accused of murdering as many as 13 people and raping 50 women during the 1970s and 1980s.

A key aspect of the case is how law enforcement identified the man. According to police in Sacramento, they matched the crime scene DNA to an entry in GEDmatch, an online database of ancestry DNA profiles. The suspect himself did not upload his DNA into GEDmatch's database -- it was a distant relative who partially matched the 30-year-old crime scene DNA. That was apparently enough for investigators to extrapolate the identity of the suspect.

Justice reform trend visible in district attorney primaries

District attorneys are among the most influential actors in the criminal justice system. They decide where to focus prosecutorial resources. They determine whether to charge the most serious provable offense or lesser offenses. They choose whether to stack charges, and whether to choose charges carrying harsh, mandatory minimum sentences. They decide what to offer in plea negotiations, and whether to threaten additional charges against uncooperative defendants.

All those decisions are more or less entirely up to district attorneys. They have virtually unlimited discretion in charging decisions and are given their way in the vast majority of plea bargains, which account for over 90 percent of criminal convictions.

We need to guard against the risks of DNA evidence

We have written extensively on this blog and elsewhere about faulty forensic science contributing to wrongful convictions. Numerous instances of crime lab scandals between 2000 and 2008, including multiple instances of fraud and error, resulted in Congress funding an in-depth investigation and review of the forensic science disciplines and related forensic laboratory practice.

The ensuing report by the National Academy of Sciences, entitled "Strengthening Forensic Science In the United States," confirmed the lack of scientific foundation for the majority of forensic science methods.

Are police gang databases accurate? What happens if they're not?

ProPublica Illinois, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that does investigative journalism, recently published an article about inaccuracies in Chicago's gang database. Police and law enforcement officials routinely cite the gang database when investigating and prosecuting crimes. The database is also used for immigration enforcement, criminal background checks and other purposes.

Unfortunately, ProPublica says the gang database is riddled with errors -- and getting your name removed is virtually impossible.

Can data from your Amazon Alexa be used against you in court?

An estimated eight million people use Amazon's Alexa, the virtual assistant that can make lists, set timers, dial phone calls and even tell jokes. Depending on your setup, it can turn off your lights, set your home security system, and turn on and tune your TV. She recognizes different voices and can key various activities and lists to individuals based on their voices. She can keep track of most everything you're up to, and she's always listening.

It sounds like she would be an excellent witness in a courtroom.

'Serial' podcast defendant gets new trial for ineffective counsel

Adnan Syed, the defendant profiled in Season 1 the popular podcast "Serial," has been granted a new trial. A Maryland court of appeals has ruled that Syed received constitutionally ineffective assistance from his trial counsel 18 years ago, and that ineffective assistance probably affected the outcome of his trial.

Syed, now 28, was convicted of murder, kidnapping, robbery and false imprisonment in 2000. He allegedly murdered his former girlfriend in 1999 and buried her in a shallow grave in Baltimore. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Will new federal policy address unscientific forensic testimony?

Studies have shown that invalid or inaccurate forensic science is a factor in almost half of wrongful convictions. In the approximately 354 cases where DNA later exonerated an Innocence Project client, poor forensic science contributed to most of the underlying convictions.

Poor forensic science gets into criminal cases in several ways. Analysts may commit errors when collecting the evidence or performing tests. Witnesses may present the findings in a misleading or exaggerated way. Or, the technique itself may be scientifically invalid.

Police 'testilying' is an old problem that needs to be addressed

A recent New York Times story recounts how New York City police officer Nector Martinez arrested a Bronx woman on gun charges after reportedly finding a 9-millimeter handgun in a laundry bag the woman had with her at her front door when police arrived.

A hallway surveillance camera proved Martinez's version of the story, which would have sent the woman to prison, was false. Martinez knew he had to stretch the truth in order to avoid an illegal search and seizure charge. When a lawyer for the woman sought to play the surveillance video in court, prosecutors dropped the case. What happened next is the most telling part of the story: The court sealed the case so the real facts were hidden.

Is it too cruel to execute people who are old or sick?

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal on behalf of a 67-year-old Alabama death row inmate. After suffering at least two serious strokes, Vernon Madison has dementia. His speech is slurred and he says things that don't make sense. He is also blind now, and incontinent. He doesn't remember how to use the toilet in his cell. He can only say the alphabet to the letter G. He can't remember committing the crime for which he was sentenced to death.

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