Tuesday, August 09, 2011

On proof of innocence, reasonable doubt, and false rape accusations

Having gotten to know quite a few of Texas' DNA exonerees over the last few years working with the Innocence Prjoejct of Texas, I couldn't help but think about the outcome of their cases after reading a pair of stories out of Houston about false rape accusations. First, reports Richard Connelly at the Houston Press Hair Balls blog:
"Gotcha" moments don't come more classic than the one that happened in Montgomery County recently.

The Sheriff's Office blotter says two officers were called to an apartment to investigate a sexual assault.
"The alleged victim stated to the deputies that her 26-year-old male friend had sexually assaulted her," the report says.
Fair enough, and with that friend standing in the same apartment, no big manhunt needed.

Not so fast: "Upon further investigation the deputies watched a video recording the male had made that showed the female telling him that she was calling the police because he was making her leave the apartment and she would tell the police he assaulted her."

That must have been some look on the woman's face when the dude hit "play."

Sheriff's Lt. Dan Norris tells Hair Balls he doesn't have any further info on the incident, including the name of the woman, who was arrested for making a false report.

"It was unusual, though," he says. "I remember reading that report and going, 'The man was looking out for himself.'"
It's a good thing he was looking out for himself, because without that recording, his accuser's testimony alone would have been enough to convict the fellow.

Another story in today's Houston Chronicle by Ryan Crockett describes what happened to a man who was falsely accused of rape when a 14-year old victim picked him out of a photo lineup, an event which ruined his life before DNA evidence cleared his name. The article opens:
Six months after being charged with rape in a case that left his personal life in shambles,  Jose Torres is now able to begin picking up the pieces.

Citing insufficient evidence, the Harris County District Attorney's Office on Thursday dismissed an aggravated sexual assault charge against the Houston man, according to court records.

Torres, 32, served two months in jail early this year and is still trying recover from the stigma of being an accused rapist.

"Right now, my whole life is ruined," Torres said Monday. "I lost my job and was evicted from my apartment. I'm trying to pick myself up."

Torres was charged in February in the reported sexual assault of a 14-year-old girl in her southeast Houston home in July 2010.

According to police, Torres visited the house two days before the incident as a contract sales representative for Comcast. The girl identified him in a photo lineup, which led to his arrest. 

Torres is criticizing how police handled the case. "This whole story was messed up since the beginning," Torres said. "The family said I went into the house, I never went inside that house. There was no evidence and no witnesses. I had to prove my innocence instead of them proving my guilt."

Torres and his attorney, Juan Guerra, said negative DNA results led to the dismissal.

The district attorney's office could not be reached to confirm the reason for the dismissal. Houston police have not yet commented on Torres' statements.
Though it's hard to say someone is fortunate after being falsely accused of rape, there's a real sense in which both these gentlemen were damn lucky. Whether the falsehoods stemmed from malice or mere error, the alleged victim's testimony alone under Texas law would have been enough to send either of these guys to prison for decades. But biological evidence is only available in less than 10% of violent crimes, and very few people exhibit the wherewithal and forethought to record a confrontation where they might end up being falsely accused. My questions: How many others similarly positioned had no DNA evidence or video to prove their innocence? And despite current lax standards of evidence in such cases, can a conviction secured based on the testimony of a single, uncorroborated witness ever really prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt?

MORE: From Paul Kennedy at The Defense Rests about the Torres case, who concludes his post with these notable comments:
Once you're arrested you ain't innocent unless proven guilty. No, you're guilty unless you can prove otherwise. Let's slap a high bond on you so that you can't fight your case from the outside. Let's put pressure on you to accept a deal for a crime you never committed. After all, how could the state and its allies, the black-robed prosecutors, possibly be wrong? ...

Once upon a time the grand jury system was devised as a way of protecting the reputations of those accused of crime unless there was sufficient evidence to warrant a trial. Nowadays the grand jury is nothing more than a de facto division of the DA's Office who takes its marching orders from the prosecutor presenting the case.

You could argue that in this case "the system" worked as it should. Just don't try telling that to Mr. Torres.


Anonymous said...

Yet there are those who always come on here and comment that as long as you don't break the law you have nothing to fear.

ckikerintulia said...

I used to warn my good looking grandsons about the perils of dating younger girls. They evidently listened.

Anonymous said...

Heads up. The trend is to not incarcerate youth. However, the recent spat of flash mobs has produced many more violent youth that have to be dealt with.

The media has been very reluctant to report this because the mobs are made up predominantly of black youth who attack whites.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

11:51, those incidents are receiving tons of press; I have no idea how you could conclude that the media is "reluctant to report" on it. They're salivating to report it because their bias is not toward the "liberal" but the sensational: If it bleeds it leads.

Meanwhile, a heads up to you: if you want to comment here, try to stay on topic.

Chris K said...

"[T]he alleged victim's testimony alone under Texas law would have been enough to send either of these guys to prison for decades. . .And despite current lax standards of evidence in such cases, can a conviction secured based on the testimony of a single, uncorroborated witness ever really prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt?"

Having worked with the Innocence Project in another state myself, I wholeheartedly support efforts to eliminate false convictions based on unreliable eyewitness testimony and junk science. That said, I find the quote I've copied above extremely problematic in light of what we know about sexual assault. Most of the time, sexual assault is not witnessed by anyone other than the victim and the perpetrator. Most of the time, forensic evidence tending to prove penetration is not contested by the defendant, who claims that consensual sex occurred. And as often as not, evidence of anogenital injury is no more likely to have occurred as the result of an assault as it is as the result of consensual sex. Quite simply, the tough "he said she said" case is the normal case. And as such, suggesting that that kind of case is un-prosecutable because we can never achieve proof beyond a reasonable doubt based solely on a victim's testimony is tantamount to suggesting a de facto prosecutorial policy that sanctions sexual assault in the vast majority of cases. If we are going to entertain the possibility that sexual assault victim testimony is not sufficient to support a conviction, then we need to address the very real consequences on our capacity to attach criminal penalties to sexual assault in the most basic sense.

number one mom said...

it was reported to the grand jury that the aggravated sex offense was against a minor. aggravated-pillow, sex offense-oral sex, minor-26yr.old female. they both lived in adjoining houses, bbqed, partied etc. she refused to pick him out of a line up. said it was too dark, couldn't see him clearly. yet, they got up when the baby started crying and got a bottle for him. prosecutors insisted on plea aggreement or they would make sure he got life if he kept insisting on jury trial. he got life anyway. he's got 15yrs. down and another 15yrs. to go before he even goes before parole. how many more cases are there like this? my heart broke when they gave him life. did i mention this happened in williamson county, texas? it can and does happen, unlawfully.

Anonymous said...

Her name was conveniently withheld because of the other innocent men which were successfully prosecuted by the Montgomery county DA's office. They wouldn't want the others coming forward now and having the DA forced to re-open any of those cases. Absolutely pitiful that Montgomery county is allowed to get away with such as this.

Hook Em Horns said...

Right on Grits. All it takes in Texas for a conviction is the testimony (many times coached and rehearsed) from the so-called victim.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Chis K, I can't tell: Was that a "yes" or a "no" to the question, "can a conviction secured based on the testimony of a single, uncorroborated witness ever really prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt"? Do you think mere accusation is enough, or rather (since it is), that it should be? Yes or no?

Chris K said...

Grits, it wasn't intended to be either a yes or a no, but a comment on the nature of the question. To rephrase more bluntly, I'd ask whether you would be content with a criminal process that is effectively incapable of convicting a perpetrator of sexual assault who takes care to commit the offense in private, without physically injuring the victim, and who claims the act was consensual (i.e., most perpetrators)?

Chris Halkides said...

Was the woman making the false accusation ever prosecuted? If not, that might be part of the problem.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Chris K, I see evasion is the order of the day, so I'll man up and answer your question plainly, even if you won't afford me the same respect.

I believe there should be some sort of corroboration besides an accusation for felony rape charges. And in many cases, there is such corroboration in some way, shape or fashion, not every rape case is all he-said she-said. I believe a disproportionate number of innocent people are convicted of this crime because the standards of evidence requrie so little proof to convict.

Now your turn: given instances like those described above, can you honestly say accuser testimony alone can "prove" guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt"? Really? Nobody wants real rapists to go free, but tell the truth: Is that an intellectually honest stance, or just a politically correct one? Without the video and DNA, these two guys would be toast by that standard, and you've offered no suggestion that would prevent such a tragedy.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Chris Halkides, The woman who made the false accusation was charged with a Class B misdemeanor.

Anonymous said...

Have women now joined judges, cops and prosecutors in the list of villains?

Anonymous said...

Grits suggestion would effectively preclude all prosecutions for "date rape"--those cases where the victim might have said "no" but the defendant forced himself upon her and then claimed it was "consensual." Same with the molestation of many child victims. Unless they put up a fight and get all bloodied and bruised, their testimony would never be enough to convict in his world. I'm sure women would be especially happy to know that under his approach, they no longer have control of their body or any recourse if they submit to a acquaintance rape committed in private. But hey, what are a few collateral victims in our quest to achieve perfection in our system? Here's an idea: How about letting a jury hear both sides and deciding which side is more credible or believable? It's not perfect, but it's worked fairly well in this country for well over 200 years now.

Anonymous said...

This RSO system is quite a Cottage industry for lawyers and the courts for fines and fees. I there was no money in it it would not even be a n issue.

Anonymous said...

There is a special place in the pits of hell for Texas prosecutors. The parents of Texas prosecutors should have used condoms.

Anonymous said...

"I believe a disproportionate number of innocent people are convicted of this crime because the standards of evidence requrie so little proof to convict."

Well, don't you tend to believe that your thugs wouldn't lie?

Anonymous said...

to number one mom: did your loved one have a court appointed lawyer? who was the prosecutor? 15 years ago the DA was the now Judge Ken Anderson. Just curious. There are 7 other families from the same county with similar stories with supporting documentation. I would like to know what other similarities these cases share.

Anonymous said...

Good comments and it has raised my interest - tricky stuff but if the "system" manipulates the intent of the law it always sticks in my craw and it seems to create other problems later on down the road - usually with the innocent and low income defendants I think.

I do find it interesting that Williamson County found it so difficult to recognize and prosecute one of their own for a crime that they especially claim to be tough on - for Williamson County that is most everything UNLESS it is one of their own from what I have observed over the last 10 years. The list is amazing.
I believe that the policeman who raped a young lady had numerous complaints made and even had been hired AFTER being investigated for the murder of his girlfriend.....all those complaints were either ignored or covered up and as for the murder I believe that there is still a man in prison for that even tho they are trying to now proved he committed that crime but need time to prove that.
My point is - being "tough on crime" and in this case "rape cases" should be consistent. It appears to me that over the years the law of the land is not applied equally to one of their own or of course to people who have MONEY or POWER.

Chris K said...

Grits- First, no evasion or disrespect intended. I felt you were attempting to reframe my objection in a way that'd be more convenient for you, so I just wanted to get a straight answer about where you stand.

To answer your question straight, I believe a jury would be reasonable in voting not to convict if all the evidence offered was the victim witness's testimony. Like you, if I were on a jury in a sexual assault trial, I would look for corroborating evidence.

Where it looks like we differ most dramatically, however, is in our understandings of how easily or frequently sexual assault convictions are won. While I agree that, in the universe of wrongful convictions, sexual assault prosecutions represent a significant proportion of screw-ups, it's shortsighted not also to recognize that the VAST majority of sexual assaults that get reported to police (most don't, of course) don't result in indictments, much less convictions. So, from the perspective of a man wrongfully accused, conviction comes too easy, and from the perspective of a woman who's raped, holding her rapist accountable is next to impossible.

I also see the two stories you described in the post as vastly different scenarios. One seems to involve a malicious false accusation deserving of a false report charge, while the other seems to involve a mistaken ID by a child. I take no issue with the point I think you're implying with the latter: eyewitness ID practices need reform, and fast. However, I do think it's irresponsible to present these two stories side by side to suggest that false rape accusations are rampant and easily result in wrongful convictions. Aside from conflating the two different situations, it also unfairly assumes the man who recorded the video was very likely to be convicted. The stats say otherwise. Prosecutors tend not to charge, and grand juries tend not to indict, in these cases for all the reasons you said: no corroboration and general skepticism about "crying rape." In my experience people get a bit more eager to punish when the victim is not an adult, which weighs again in favor of greater regulation of eyewitness ID practices.

I don't see this as a cut and dry "better to let 100 men go free" issue. Police need to do better work to find the corroborating evidence. If investigators and prosecutors worked these cases the same way they work others--interviewing every potential witness, withholding judgments about credibility at the outset--then the pure "he said she said" case would become less ordinary.

I don't think we ultimately disagree on a lot here. I just think that when we talk about sexual assault--and especially as it relates to wrongful convictions--we need to take care to tell the whole story. There's no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. A better approach is to hold police accountable to do effective and thorough investigations, focused on objective evidence collection rather than actively searching for holes in the victim's story from the very start. That better serves victims, of course, but a heightened standard for what a sexual assault investigation looks like would also make weak sexual assault cases look weaker, which would help the innocent.

Anonymous said...

My family is going through something right now that is just crazy. This 14 yr old girl who was a so called friend of my daughter who has just met my son on this one particular day accused my 20 yr old son of sexual assault. My son told us that she tried to do something to him and he told her no and pushed her off and she got mad and said fine, whatever... however, 3 days later, she made an outcry statement. So, now he is out on bond with all these restrictions. What is funny is that this girl wanted to spend the whole next day and night with my daughter again and was trying to kiss on my daughter the next day also and my youngest son saw this and she told my youngest son not to tell what he saw because then she wouldn't be allowed to come over again....
How do we defend this? Something just isn't right about this whole thing and this girl made statements to my daughter the day that this happened that she liked older guys and had in fact hooked up with an older guy a week before who was her older sister friend.
We have an attorney but I am afraid she may not be fighting enough for us. We also have witness who saw how this girl kept trying to follow my son around the day this happened and the day after and kept trying to jump on his back at the pool and such.
Any ideas what we can do?
My son is so distraught over this and doesn't want to have to go to prison or have to register for life as an RSO

Anonymous said...

These types of stories, literally thousands of them, are being discussed at False Rape Society

The taping of a false accuser by her boyfriend is part of an arsenal of tools teenage males and men should use to avoid false rape claims which are discussed at:
https://www.facebook.com/groups/protectionformen/ Also see http://protectionformen.com

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Hey Grits, what's up. With this topic being my cup-o-tea & right up my ally, allow me to thank you for including Qs of relevance.

*Folks about to comment we salute you but...

1.a-"My questions: How many others similarly positioned had no DNA evidence or video to prove their innocence?"

1.b-"And despite current lax standards of evidence in such cases, can a conviction secured based on the testimony of a single, uncorroborated witness ever really prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt?"

Personally, I can relate to 1.a and only provide a partial answer regarding false identification and the methods in which police utilize to reach Positive Identifications. You can bet that we in the 'non DNA' (Texas) group certainly number in the thousands.

The hundred or so that I've heard from are unanimous in agreeing that above all the Judges are responsible for keeping info from the juries & allowing their courts to be used by the Prosecution & Defense as personal playrooms. Then there is the Attorneys/Lawyers that refused to retrieve evidence (security tapes,receipts, statements from alibis, etc...). And of course there are the victim(s) of crime eager to assist the police in the photo arrays & line-up procedures believing or being told that the suspect is number 5. Thanks.

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Mr. Paul Kennedy said - "Once upon a time the grand jury system was devised as a way of protecting the reputations of those accused of crime unless there was sufficient evidence to warrant a trial. Nowadays the grand jury is nothing more than a de facto division of the DA's Office who takes its marching orders from the prosecutor presenting the case."

I have the utmost respect for Mr. K. especially since he had the guts to Post numerous articles about the very HPD Det., turned frigin Judge that rail-roaded my butt. But, WTF? Could someone please tell me when the Grand Jury System of Texas did this? Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I am a survivor of true rape. I am not a victim. These types of stories infuriate me. It demeans and belittles what I went through. I am sick of lying, manipulative females. I dont care what age they are. It is sickening and wrong. Women for years now have discovered this power that they have over men and they are not afraid to use it.
Stop lying, stop manipulating, stop accusing when nothing has happened. Only then can the true victims have true justice.

Anonymous said...

My comments on the current criminal conviction system in TX. First the grand jury will indict a "ham sandwich" if asked by the DA. It is common knowledge. 2nd when a crime is committed "somebody is gonna pay". Everyone is outraged by the Casey Anthony decision while it has been documented that to this date there are hundreds that have been freed by DNA evidence that in many cases sat in jail for decades, yet where is the outrage? The same conviction system that put these guys in prison, put everyone else in jail as well. There is no DNA to free everyone else. Once adjudicated in TX, it almost takes an act of God see miracle to get any relief. Google the Rodney Reed case. The appeals system in TX is nothing more than a rubber stamp for the state. We citizens calmly sit back and think that the guys with the white hats ALWAYS do right. If you or any of your immediate family gets involved with the system in any kind of high profile case, you will quickly learn that the good guys will do all that is necessary to secure a conviction and the system makes is very easy. Currently it is better to imprison 100 innocent in order to make sure that we get the guilty most of the time.

Hillary said...

It is no wonder that so many females who are actually raped hold back and tell no one for fear of no one believing them. With women who try and cheat the system, using it as payback for not getting what they want, it starts to make all women look like they are crying wolf.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the Georgetown PD officer in Williamson County: His attorney (retained)was a prosecutor for same county in the late 1980's before opening his own private practice. His office (very nice) located next door to the Williamson County Courthouse Annex (newest courthouse). This prosecutor came from Dallas County. His Dallas record: asst prosecutor for Larry Charles Fuller - convicted 1981, exonerated 2007; lead prosecutor Keith Edward Turner convicted 1983, exonerated 2005; lead prosecutor Johnnie Pinchback convicted 1984, exonerated 2011.

Anonymous said...

We have many organizations and people who are, without stop, fanning the flames of resentments. To advance the notion that criminals are innocent, they attack and undermine every one of our institutions. They claim that all those in authority are unfair or abusive and they paint violent criminals as innocent and mistreated. We can see what these criminals are really like because they are out there on the street involved in mob violence. By their actions, they reveal what they are really all about.

The headline says it all:
American Mayors Watch Warily as London Burns

Fanning the flames has consequences.

Anonymous said...

8:22 pm Whoa there cowboy, this article is about how innocent people(oftentimes railroaded)get caught in the criminal justice system. The system has undermined itself when it attacks the people it is to serve.

Your comment is bizarre. "Flame the fans of resentment" You are implying those who stand up against the injustices are inciting riots?

What do you think of prosecutors who knowingly prosecute innocent people? Or, individuals who make false accusations that destroy a person's life? Are they criminals in your mind?

Anonymous said...

Wow, fanning the flames has consequences. Are you making threats cowboy?

Anonymous said...

8:22 are you a prosecutor or what? maybe you are guilty of putting innocent people in prison. are you? maybe we should beware of you.

Anonymous said...

8:22, Despite the fact that you believe you are better than others, in reality you are really no different than the criminals who participate in those mobs.

Let me explain why I say that. Somewhere around the turn of the century, around 1906,l I think, a young black man was convicted of raping a white woman in Chattanooga. The man was given a sham trial, not that much different from trials that occur in some jurisdictions today (think Judge Jack Skeen in Smith County). The man was sentenced to death. This case is significant because it was the first time the US Supreme Court intervened in a state death penalty case. The Supreme Court stayed the execution. But, with complicity of the sheriff, a "mob" comprised of the good citizens of the city, broke the man out of jail and hung him from a bridge. In, I think 2000, almost 100 years later, the man was exonerated by a court. He was innocent.

I tell this story because I suspect many people today, like 8:22, would eagerly participate in a lynch mob if it was still considered socially acceptable. So 8:22, none of us are really that much different from anyone else. Given the right circumstances you too would probably participate in a mob.

Its sad to see how we know longer believe some of the things that we used to, as a society. It seems the more prosperous our society becomes, the crueler and less compassionate it becomes. We've lost the concepts of forgiveness and redemption. We seem to no longer beleive it is possible for a person to "pay their debt to society." We no longer believe that its better that 10 guilty men go free than one innocent man be imprisoned. It seems we've embraced just the opposite. We no longer say, "There, but by the grace of God, go I."

number one mom said...

no,at first he had a paid attorney who told my son not to worry, just hang in there. after months of being isolated in jail, and threatened with life, he conceded and took a plea deal. his lawyer was not present, and really got p...when he found out. he took a 10 yr. deferred and was doing really good until a domestic dispute with his wife. that was a violation of this deferred, and was given the life sentence by a visiting judge who acted on Bradley's advice. my son never had anything more than traffic tickets before this. and yes, i recognize anderson and stubblefields name. thanks for inquiring, and i have no doubt there are others with a similar story such as this.

Anonymous said...

number one mom: Bradley -- former commissioner of the Forensics Science Commission still the district attorney in Williamson County. Did the court order a mental exam for your son? If so, do you recall the name of the psych? Also who was the visiting judge?

Anonymous said...

number one mom, please take a look at www.texasvoices.org join us. We are an activist group fighting to change these idiotic laws and fighting for those like your son.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

One notices 8:56 refuses to answer the question posed, instead arguing we must uphold a fiction - that accusation is proof - or else convictions can't be secured in borderline cases. I don't doubt admitting to reality might change how the justice system works, for good and ill, reducing false positives may increase false negatives. Such is the nature of a system whose priorities have been slanted for years toward the mentality of "convict at all cost." But these examples and the DNA exonerees show that, in reality, accusation is not proof. Argue the same points using THESE cases as examples and the idea of "what is justice?" sounds a lot different.

10:26, you realize I'm mostly referencing Texas DNA exonerees, who in fact, didn't lie but were sometimes lied on. In many cases the DNA evidence evetually ID'd the actual rapist, who you seemingly wouldn't care about finding, preferring to let sleeping dogs lie. Bizarre.

As for just putting forward evidence that fails to meet an objective standard of proof and "letting the jury decide," that may make sense to ferret out cases of intentional false accusation (though evidence shows most people aren't good at judging lies), but the guy falsely ID'd by a 14-year old in a lineup would be screwed. She may well have believed she'd picked the right person. But she didn't.

Fwiw, I'd be fine with only requiring corroboration where it could not be established that the victim previously knew the defendant, since it's stranger IDs where the eyewitness problem lies. But I also think the law should protect people from false accusers. To say one person's accusation can be legal "proof" beyond a reasonable doubt may be pragmatically necessary to secure convictions, but intellectually it is pretending the emperor wears no clothes, letting the state send people to prison without actually proving anything.

Chris K, sorry you think this post was "irresponsible," but the truth is false convictions happen in many different ways. Some by accident, some by malice, some in a hazy grey area. Those cases exist and I don't think it benefits anyone to ignore the fact that there are multiple reasons for false convictions (e.g., it's not all police and prosecutor misconduct), and not just focus on the politically correct ones.

Anonymous said...

This is horrible I'm going through this with my 19 year old son facing life for a complete lie. If you have any ideas to share with me on fighting to prove innocent please help me.There's no evidence just a police report of lies the story has changed multiple times. She loves the attention she is received. She went to court 1 month before this and lied to judge and whole court to get a divorce and got it.I wish we was able to pit them on lie detector where is my sons rights this is so sad. If they get caught making false allegations I think they should do life in prison cause they don't think twice about the wrongly accused here in Montgomery Co. Ohio.