Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A DNA Exoneration close to home.

An amazing thing happened in my courthouse yesterday: http://blogs.cwsl.edu/news/2009/08/10/california-innocence-project-obtains-reversal-of-12-year-old-murder-conviction/ Here is the text:

"Today, 16 years to the day after the murder of Pamela Richards, San Bernardino County Judge Brian McCarville granted the California Innocence Project’s request to reverse the murder conviction of her husband William Richards. Finding that new evidence points “unerringly to innocence,” Richards’s 1997 conviction of murdering his wife in their Hesperia, Calif., home was thrown out. Richards was convicted for the 1993 murder after two trials ended in hung juries.
The reversal marks the successful conclusion to an eight year-long process. In 2001, Richards contacted the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law, a non-profit clinical program in which law professors, lawyers, and law students work to free wrongfully convicted prisoners in California. He maintained his innocence in the murder and sought the Project’s help in requesting a reversal of his conviction.

The California Innocence Project obtained new DNA testing on the murder weapon. Test results revealed that an unidentified male held the murder weapon and struggled with the victim. DNA testing on hair from under the victim’s fingernails also pointed to another person other than Richards. This evidence countered the prosecution’s claim that no one other than Richards or his wife were at their home on the night of the murder.

During the Richards trial, evidence was presented indicating that a “bite mark” on the victim’s hand could have only come from Richards or two percent of the population. However, the testimony provided by the bite mark expert was based on incomplete information and poor photos. Experts obtained by the Project were able to correct the distortion in the photographs and testify that Richards could not have been the person responsible for the “bite mark.”
The California Innocence Project also argued that fiber evidence may have been falsified by someone employed by the County. The prosecution claimed that a tuft of 15 light-blue fibers were found in a tear in the victim’s fingernail. According to the prosecution, the fibers matched those of the shirt Richards was wearing the night of the murder. However, members of the California Innocence Project discovered that photos taken just after the victim’s autopsy clearly showed no such fibers in the fingernail. After the autopsy, the victim’s fingers were severed and sent to a county criminalist for review. Sometime after that, the fibers appeared.

“We have been working on this case almost as long as the California Innocence Project has been in existence,” said Justin Brooks, Professor at California Western and Director of the California Innocence Project. “To say that I’m ecstatic with today’s decision is an understatement. William Richards has been living a nightmare for 16 years. First he had to deal with the murder of his wife and then he had to face his wrongful conviction and incarceration for the crime. What could be worse?”

Jan Stigltiz, Professor at California Western and Co-Director of the California Innocence Project argued successfully in his closing that the case was purely circumstantial.

“Other than the fact that Richards came home and found his wife, there was no evidence linking him to the crime. These cases are hard to win,” said Stiglitz. “But if you get a judge like McCarville who is willing to take a fresh look at the evidence, then wrongful convictions can be corrected.”

Founded in 1999, the California Innocence Project is a law school clinical program dedicated to the release of wrongfully convicted inmates and providing an outstanding educational experience for students enrolled in the clinic. The California Innocence Project reviews more than a 1,000 claims from inmates each year and has earned the exoneration of eight wrongfully convicted clients since its inception."

I have only a few notes. First, good job Judge McCarville. It takes courage to make the right ruling, and he clearly made it. Second, how, EXACTLY, did the photos showing that the fiber evidence was fraudulent get found, and why weren't they produced before trial? The key piece of evidence that likely lead the jury to convict was the fiber on the victim's broken fingernail, that was likely from D's shirt. That sounds big to me. There are photos of the V's fingers, cut off after the autopsy, that show the fibers in the broken nail. Pretty damning. But, behold, apparently sometime after the trial the autopsy photos show up, and the autopsy photos show the fingers before they were removed from the body, and there are no fibers in the broken fingernail. In other words, the fiber was not present at the autopsy, but was there AFTER the fingers were cut off and sent to the crime lab. How were those autopsy photos not produced before the trial? Third, How was the DNA missed? Was this a case where the DNA wasn't as reliable as it is now? Was it too expensive?

Finally, how many times will this have to happen for everyone else to realize that our criminal justice system is badly broken? How many guys are out there who didn't get their case before a decent judge? Who didn't have DNA evidence to "prove" that they were wrongly convicted? William Richards is lucky that the California Innocence project exists, that they took an interest in his case, and that they worked their asses off for him. Too many times, I am certain, the wrong guy gets convicted because everyone is in a foul mood about the crime, the defense attorney is not on the ball or is overworked, the DA is focused solely on convicting the guy rather than doing what is right, the police are too interested in closing their books to investiagte properly, and the judge is too focused on making sure the DA gets a fair trial, rather than the D. The juries are made up of ordinary, but usually conservative, people who want to do "justice," rather than follow the law. Reasonable doubt gets forgotten in the shuffle. In other words, the entire system evades accountability because no one is actually accountable. And even if the right guy does get convicted, when corners are cut, we lose any sense of certainty that we are, in fact, being just in punishing this person. That isn't right.

I know that our system is not perfect. But we should not have such drastic sentences, and certainly should not have the death penalty, when there is so much uncertainty and unfairness in our system. I wouldn't want to treat those accused of crime any worse than I would expect to be treated if I were accused. William Richards got screwed, and it is our fault.

What are we going to do about it?

Dennis R. Wilkins
The Guest Blogger

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Wow, what a long time

I have been very busy with life, so I haven't posted in 6 months. I see that PDDude hasn't posted either.

I am very burned out with being a deputy public defender. I used to enjoy the job, but now I don't. Suffice to say that I am an employee, and an employee who has been taught to fear for his job. Very sad that it has come to this.

There was a time when I didn't care. But now I have kids to support. A mortgage to pay. I have to conform to what the bosses want. I have come to realize that I must do exactly what they say, or I will be fired. It isn't about protecting my clients. It is about satisfying my bosses.

I believe that this country, and the State of California, are at a very crucial stage. Our legal system is melting down. The current budget crisis is goign to get worse and worse because it is the natural result of a defective system. We require an informed and motivated citizenry to make our democracy work. But we are overwhelmed on the one hand with ill-informed older people who "think" they understand what is going on, but really don't, and a swelling population of illegal aliens who have no say in the system. The poor are rapidly forgetting that that they have the power to vote, the illegals have no power to vote, and the old white guys who still have sway want something that is impossible to get - a rollback to the 1950s. we have a system that is beset with gridlock and preyed upon by those wealthy interests, such as banking and insurance industries, and the prison-industrial system, who can control our state government with a pittance of corrupt dollars. The disconnect is amazing.

Okay, enough whining, I guess. I still hate those old-style liberals who would constantly moan about things but would never actually try solve them. How about some predictions:

Predictions #1: The budget crisis will get worse. The only way to save our system is to honestly re-think how we do just about everything in Calfornia. Too long we have allowed ourselves to think "the little things don't matter." They do. WE CANNOT AFFORD THREE STRIKES - IT IS KILLING US. I was against Three Strikes before it was popular to be against it. I have railed against Three Strikes for moral reasons and for fairness reasons. Now we are actually closing schools to feed the beast. It's time to re-think crimes, sentencing, prisons, jails, mental health as it relates to crimes, the works. We cannot afford the system that we have, and destroying our future to keep people locked up is madness.

Prediction #2: The feds will not be able to get california to release inmates. In a way, it is a blessing. The anti-federal government attitude is going to harden the already bankrupt Republican Party in california, further alienating them from normal people. The 9th Circuit just ordered the release of 45,000 prisoners within 2 years. Count on the state to appeal, and the U.S. Supremes to REVERSE. It will be 5-4, but it will be reversed. And this is a good thing. Because then the State will be forced to solve this crisis.

Funny thing about crises - they often make the impossible possible. At some level too many people are actually worrying about services in California. Like Schools. Or libraries. Or electricity. Or garbage collection. Or health care. The costs of these things are set to spiral out of control in the next few years. We will have to fix these things. And in doing so, I think that it will make us stronger as a State.

Dennis R. Wilkins
The Guest Blogger

Friday, January 02, 2009

The Meltdown Continues

Two articles sum up what's going on with the prison crisis in California. The prison crisis is best understood when we juxtapose our ridiculous sentencing policies, such as 3 Strikes, with our ongoing unreality of finances in California. They are both part and parcel of denial of reality by those who really run this state - the People of the State of California.

First the budget crisis. From "California Progress Report," an online publication about California politics and issues:

"Schrag: A Series of Bad Decisions Have Compounded Current Crisis
By Peter Schrag

This is usually the time for looking ahead, making resolutions, wishing for greater things. But in California we've locked ourselves into a mind-set and governmental processes that look like nothing so much as deliberate attempts to avoid thinking about the future, much less dealing with it.

Through term limits, we've created a Legislature that has neither an institutional memory nor members who can expect to be rewarded for long-term success, and thus, with rare exceptions, lack any motivation for leadership or inclination to sacrifice and compromise in the present.
We have refused to change a supermajority requirement, one of the few such absurdities in America, which allows any minority to veto any budget or tax increase. If five Republicans – three in the Assembly and two in the Senate – had been willing to negotiate such a compromise, the state would have had a budget long ago.

Their loyalty to an ideology trumps all others. This is the ideology of Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform: Starve the beast. It is that ideology as much as any that has put the country into the fiscal and regulatory mess it's in now.

We have tied ourselves into knots with a combination of governmental decisions and waves of voter initiatives whose most common characteristic, whether liberal or conservative, is short-sightedness. Among others:

• Unfunded multibillion-dollar bond issues for stem cell research, high-speed rail, children's hospitals and for paying off past debts. With interest, the long-term cost of each will be double the advertised price.

• A $6 billion annual "spending increase" to replace local government funding lost through an impulsive cut in the car tax.

• Autopilot sentencing laws hastily passed in the wake of one heinous crime that continue to cost billions in prison expenses.

• An inflexible class-size reduction program pushed through without study or serious debate by a petulant governor wishing to punish the teachers unions. It costs $2 billion a year.

• An unfunded initiative extending pre- and after-school programs that costs close to $500 million a year.

• Corporate tax loopholes written into the tax code in flush times that easily matched the increased spending on education and other programs that were enacted in the same years.

• And the grandfather of them all: the convoluted, accountability-defying, state-local tax and revenue system spawned thirty years ago by the passage of Proposition 13 and the long string of state measures to bail out the locals that have been enacted in the years since.

Those bailouts inadvertently taught all the wrong lessons: that you can have your local property tax limitations and good services, too; that the way to solve any major problem was through the initiative, not through electoral politics; that the legislature and governor who bailed you out were irrelevant and often worse; that the citizen's first concern was not community but what he could get from it.

Those ballot measures were almost always designed not to be respectful of political minorities – their very essence was to get a 51 percent majority – or to serve the state's long-term interests.

They were usually drawn by deep-pockets groups, and advertised to address an issue of the moment. As new problems arise, the remedy is a fix for problems present, rarely for problems yet to come.

It's long been a truism that we're living on the investments and foresight of the past: our once-pioneering highway systems, now in terrible disrepair; the state's unmatched public universities, now increasingly struggling against the effects of declining public support; the statesmanship that created a great water system by linking the need for water supplies in the south to flood control in the north.

Like much of the rest of the state's infrastructure, that too is now superannuated, the victim of chronic neglect. The miracle of the infrastructure – and the tribute to its farsighted creators – is that it served the state so well for so long.

It helped drive the great California boom of the postwar decades – attracted the talented, ambitious men and women who made California the great center of technology and creativity it became. They didn't come for low taxes, but for good schools, outstanding research universities, parks, recreation and transportation.

California historian Kevin Starr asks where the great leaders of California's future will come from. Where are the Pat Browns, the Clark Kerrs, the Earl Warrens, the Goodwin Knights, the Phil Burtons? Where are visionaries like the philosopher Josiah Royce, born in 1855 in Grass Valley, who believed that Californians would always understand that their interests lay in community, not self-aggrandizement?

What they shared was a vision of the future, a fundamental optimism about this place. It's that kind of hope and optimism, and that kind of people that, at this time of year especially, are so much worth wishing for.

Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee. This article is published with his permission. Posted on December 30, 2008." Here is the website where I got this from:


Juxtapose this with the prison crisis. From an online article by New American Media.

"Prison Overcrowding Crisis Unhealthy for All Californians

New America Media, Commentary, Donna Willmott, Posted: Dec 04, 2008

Editor's Note: California prisons have become the largest mental health system for the poor, the largest battered women's shelter, and the largest system of public housing, observes NAM contributing writer, Donna Willmott, M.P.H. Willmott is the Family Advocacy Coordinator at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and teaches in the Health Education and Community Health Studies Department of City College of San Francisco.

As a public health professional who has spent over 10 years advocating for prisoners' rights, I am dismayed to see the health of prisoners once again become a political football.More than two years ago, the federal courts acknowledged what every prisoner in California already knew – that there has been an "unconscionable degree of suffering and death" in our prisons. With all due respect to those who are working under the federal receivership to reform prison medical care, most of the systemic issues that underlie substandard care have, in our clients' experience, remained essentially unchanged. While the Receivership has succeeded in hiring a new cadre of qualified medical providers, the fact remains that progress has been painfully slow for the 178,000 prisoners trapped in this system, and many will continue to suffer needlessly in the meantime.

Overcrowding is at the root of this paralysis. The Receivership proposes to build 10,000 new medical and mental health beds, at a construction cost to taxpayers of over $7 billion dollars. Even if this project had the support of the legislature and received the required money, the crisis would not be solved. It's not possible to build and maintain these facilities, then recruit and retain sufficient numbers of well-trained staff for this constantly expanding enterprise without bankrupting the state. Without shrinking the prison system, it will be impossible to provide the required constitutional level of medical care to prisoners.

Decades of failed public policy frame this crisis. Years of a tough-on-crime approach have spelled disaster for the health and well-being of poor people and people of color who are incarcerated at dramatically disproportionate rates. We have tried to use prisons as an answer to social problems, with devastating results. Our prisons have become the largest mental health system for the poor, the largest battered women's shelter, and the largest system of public housing. The social cost of decimating our already frayed safety net in order to expand prisons is beyond calculation. We sacrifice precious community resources to maintain a prison system that creates instability, ill health and disease, while failing to keep us safe.

Perhaps taking a page from history will help us envision a new solution to this crisis. Over 150 years ago, Rudolf Virchow, the founder of "social medicine," was sent by the German government to report on the causes of a devastating 1848 typhus epidemic. Instead of recommending the simple solution of more doctors and more hospitals to avoid catastrophic loss of life in the future, Virchow called for full employment, universal education, and agricultural cooperatives as the path to preventing future epidemics. He analyzed the root causes of the epidemic, and called for a fundamental reconstruction of society to create conditions in which people could be healthy.

If Virchow were with us today, it's likely that he would be horrified by the idea of building 10,000 beds for prisoners who are extremely frail or mentally ill, people whose incarceration couldn't possibly serve public safety. He would no doubt want us to put our resources into sentencing reform, releasing low-risk prisoners, redirecting our state budget towards universal healthcare, quality public education, training and employment opportunities, and expanding drug treatment. In short, we should be ensuring the conditions in which people can be healthy as the basis for safe communities.

If Californians continue to pour billions into massive incarceration, it will mean more pink slips to school teachers, more children turned away from their doctors, more seniors denied in-home aid, more families forced into poverty and homelessness. What will it take to bring health care to California prisoners? It'll take a new way of looking at crime and punishment, a fundamental shift in our priorities and a commitment to social equity as the foundation for public safety. Bricks and mortar can't solve this one." Here is the website where I got this from:


Put these two together and we have a very clear picture of where we are and where we are going: nowhere fast. Our economy is melting down, and we cannot afford to pay for the basics. Our infrastructure has fizzled. And Three Strikes, as well as the bloated, horrifyingly bad and ridiculously expensive prison system in California is still a major cost in all of this. But no one, NO ONE is openly talking about sentencing reform.

Why? Why?

I believe it is because so many people have been such a huge, whopping lie about our cruel, unfair, and unrealistic sentencing policies, and their social costs, that standard reform is now impossible. The system will have to melt down, complete with a massive reduction in social services statewide, coupled with prison riots, for a full sentencing reform commission to be called into action. And even then change will be too slow.

No, folks, I'm afraid that we have to lose a LOT more money in California before we ever agree to actually fix this system. But it will happen. Sooner than you think.

Dennis Wilkins
The Guest PD Blogger