Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Innocence Roundup: Struggles to succeed

A number of innocence-related stories caught Grits' attention recently:

Habeas, 'actual innocence,' probation and misdemeanors
The debate over postconviction relief for "actual innocence" has mostly centered around extremely serious crimes involving rape or murder. That's mostly because DNA evidence didn't exist or wasn't preserved in other types of cases and without it, the odds of exoneration under existing legal standards are extraordinarily long. DNA evidence exists in 10% or less of violent crimes and not at all in most other cases, leaving few avenues for overturning convictions in less serious cases. But that doesn't mean false convictions don't occur in drug and property crimes or misdemeanor offenses, just that those defendants are far less likely to ever seek or receive relief.

Jordan Smith at the Austin Chronicle has a story of a man seeking habeas relief based on actual innocence for a misdemeanor assault for which he was convicted and received probation in high school (shooting a teacher with a bb-pistol from a moving car). The local press at the time (Statesman and Chronicle) ran heart-tugging stories featuring teachers calling for his prosecution and ouster from the school. The fellow who actually did the deed has come belatedly forward to accept responsibility. The conviction has prevented Cleo Hill from several jobs he sought, and now he wants the conviction overturned so he can attend nursing school. "This is the first filing to my knowledge [in Texas] of a writ of actual innocence for someone who's never been in jail," said his attorney. "In this case, Cleo wants to go to nursing school, something he can't do with an assault misdemeanor on his record." Wrote Smith:
Hill's experience provides a bitter confirmation that guilty or innocent – and whatever the punishment – a criminal history is a life sentence. While it differs in important ways from prison time, it remains a heavy, lifelong burden. Professor William Kelly, director of the Center for Criminology and Criminal Justice Research at the University of Texas, says policymakers generally consider only concrete terms of punishment like probation or jail time, seldom the legacy of conviction itself. "The reality is that the punishment continues into the future," said Kelly. Once the jail time or probation period has ended, there will always be that question on any job or housing application: Have you ever been convicted of a crime? "If we could dip offenders into punishment and pull them out, it would be okay," said Kelly. "But that's not how it works."

Having a record can paradoxically force someone deeper into criminal activity. "Being labeled early on does nothing to ensure the likelihood of success," said Kelly. "In fact, it perpetuates a cycle of reoffending." Kelly concedes that many felony charges have justifiably significant, continuing consequences, but he believes a lifetime record is disproportional for a misdemeanor. "We have to ask ourselves, is this really the impact that we want to have?"
'Sixteen and life to go'
Continuing with the theme of innocent people not exonerated, John Browning at the Southeast Texas Record has part one of a story titled "Sixteen and life to go," in which he describes a likely innocent man who it now appears may never be exonerated. (See the story for details of the case.) Chad Uptergrove was tried as an adult when he was 16 and just celebrated his 32nd birthday in prison, having now spent half his life behind bars. The Court of Criminal Appeals recently denied him habeas relief. There was no DNA evidence to prove his innocence conclusively and a Brady violation (failing to tell the defense about an exculpatory witness) was deemed harmless error, which pretty much the only type of error the CCA thinks prosecutors ever make.

Struggling to succeed: Exoneration and reentry
Exoneree Calvin Johnson out of Waco spent 15 years behind bars for a rape and murder he didn't commit before he and his co-defendant were cleared by DNA of the offense in 2001. According to the Waco Tribune Herald, though (subscription only), Johnson struggled after his release, ultimately succumbing to a heroin addiction that has now landed him back in prison with an eight year sentence. The new conviction makes him ineligible for the annuity which was made retroactive in 2009. The Trib's Cindy Culp reported:
Washington’s experience is not unique. Experts who work with exonerees said the majority experience problems after their release. Most don’t go back to prison, but a “large minority” do, said Vanessa Potkin, a senior staff attorney for the national Innocence Project. 

“It’s understandable for those who have been debilitated by what they’ve been through,” Potkin said. “It’s more shocking, I think, that so many thrive, do so well and contribute to society.” 

A total of 272 people in the United States have been cleared by post-conviction DNA testing, according to the project. It does not have data on how many of them have been arrested after their release. 

But research done by the New York Times in 2007 showed one-sixth of exonerees returned to prison or suffered from drug or alcohol addiction. Most struggled to keep a job, rebuild relationships and deal with the psychological scars of wrongful imprisonment, the newspaper reported.
The story goes on to feature the Texas Exoneree Project - which is a group of Texas exonerees who've formed a support group out of Dallas to help one another and others newly exonerated.
The group played a key role in the passage of improved compensation measures during the past two legislative sessions, [Innocence Project of Texas policy director Cory] Session said. Plus, members show up every time a newly exonerated Texan is released. 

“They travel around the state to help that next person,” Session said. “(Because of that), exonerees are getting a lot more help than ever before.” 

Charles Chatman, who spent 27 years in prison after he was mistakenly identified in a rape case, said he can’t overstate how critical the group has been to him. Some of the issues exonerees face can’t be understood by anyone else, he said. 

Family relationships often have to be rebuilt from “ground zero,” Chatman said. Navigating new technology can be tough, too. He said he can still remember how frustrated he felt the first time he tried to use an automatic checkout lane at the grocery store. 

Finances can be another stumbling block, Chatman said. The compensation money is helpful, but it also creates problems. A number of people in the group have had to deal with demanding relatives or unscrupulous financial advisers, he said. 

“Everybody takes advantage of us,” Chatman said. “It really hurts.” 

The group doesn’t push specific advice on new exonerees, Chatman said. But it lets them know members are available to help as needed, he said.
Compensating Anthony Graves
Finally, the Texas Tribune has an update on changes to the state compensation law that will allow Anthony Graves and others similarly situated to receive compensation for their false convictions - even if the case wasn't overturned based on a habeas writ finding "actual innocence" - if the judge and prosecutor agree they were falsely convicted. "The measure also makes wrongfully imprisoned people eligible to receive the same health benefits given to employees of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for a period equal to the time they spent in prison. Their families, however, would not qualify for coverage, and the individuals would still have to pay a monthly contribution."


Anonymous said...

""The reality is that the punishment continues into the future," said Kelly. Once the jail time or probation period has ended, there will always be that question on any job or housing application: Have you ever been convicted of a crime? "

Why can't laws be passed which make it illegal for this type of double jeopardy to be practiced?

sunray's wench said...

Why can't a law be passed that states a child is a child for all purposes until they reach a certain age, and the goalposts cannot be moved just because a vindictive DA wants them moved?

Anonymous said...

Do courts review Brady claims raised in habeas corpus as harmless error or are you just making things up?

Anonymous said...

Google John and Michael Arena. Jordan Smith has written several articles about this family. They were on 20/20 and the state of tx refused to release to release Michael. It makes me angry and sad to think how many our state has locked up, accused, charged that are truly innocent. I pray that one day those responsible will be held accountable. I know they will, but the citizens would like to see that happen. Thank you Grits for everything you do.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

12:30, do you have any reason to believe otherwise or are you just trolling?

The linked article states that the Brady violation wasn't enough to overturn the conviction because the trial judge said it "wouldn't have led to a different verdict." Whether they used the phrase "harmless error" I don't know (I've only read this news account, not the opinions), but that's certainly the upshot of that result.

rodsmith said...

yes the old "harmeless error"

that catch up whitewash word the courts use to COVER UP thier own SCREWUPS!

Anonymous said...

The title of this post continues to play on repeat in my mind, as I was recently charged with a weapons felony.

Without spilling all of the sordid details, I will say that I was accused of a crime that I did not commit. There is no evidence that I was in possession of any type of weapon, let alone the one in question. I was not read my rights, I was not told I was being arrested for this charge, and the arresting officer lied in his report about my statement to him. Nonetheless, I am facing a serious felony purely based on the accuser's false claims; and, the fact that I reside in the same property, yet separate dwelling, as the complainant.

According to what I know about the law, I will more than likely be convicted of this because I cannot physically prove my innocence. It is also unfortunate for me that I am related to my witnesses.

But, the worst part of this is that I am currently attending college to become a parole officer. I do not even have a criminal record, adult or juvenile. My entire life has been ruined, as well as the future welfare of my family.

I am astounded that I was arrested due to one flimsy accusation, and my knowledge of the weapon being on the property, not my person. I am even more astounded that the arresting officer suggest that I lie to "help myself."

I may be actually innocent, but through every step of the process I have been treated like a liar, and a guilty criminal.

Your blog has been extremely helpful in my quest for knowledge of the Texas Criminal Justice System, and our state laws and politics. I am extremely grateful to have access to your wealth of information. Thanks so much for your efforts!

Warm regards to you and yours...