Common Sense?

What does it take to prove a man guilty of murder? Apparently, not much.

Anthony Dansberry was convicted of robbery and murder for an attack on an elderly woman. The evidence that led to his conviction? A palm print. An eyewitness identification.

But the palm print didn’t match Anthony’s. And the eyewitness who picked Anthony out of a lineup had previously viewed his picture in a photo array. Another eyewitness viewing the same lineup picked a different man, and still another said Anthony was definitely not the perpetrator.

The real problem is that Anthony signed a confession. But Anthony is developmentally challenged and has the reading comprehension of a first grader. The confession he signed, the confession he was told were release papers, used words he didn’t even understand.

Unfortunately, there’s none of the DNA evidence we’ve come to rely on that could prove Anthony’s innocence. Instead, we need common sense. That is in short supply; Anthony has already served 22 years of a 75 year sentence.

Willie Manning Deserves DNA Testing

If someone’s life were at stake, wouldn’t you do everything you could to make sure any decision you made was correct? Wouldn’t you take advantage of every bit of information you could lay your hands on?

The Mississippi Supreme Court would not.

Willie Manning is on death row for the abduction and murder of two college students in 1992. While there is circumstantial evidence of his guilt, the only physical evidence is hair, hairs the FBI claims are from an African American (as Willie is), while the two victims were white. But the FBI and the National Academy of Science has recently recognized that, in the absence of DNA testing, hair analysis may not be reliable. The FBI is so concerned about this issue that they’re undertaking a massive review of all the cases in which their analysts testified regarding hair microscopy.

What would you do? Test the hair for DNA. Simple.

Then why has the Mississippi Supreme Court denied Willie’s multiple requests for DNA testing?

It’s not that there’s no evidence to test. There’s the hairs, as well as a rape kit and fingernail scrapings. But the Court insists there’s already “overwhelming evidence of guilt.” Maybe. But why not make sure with one more test. A man’s life is at stake.

No Excuses?

The good state of Texas has executed another convicted murderer. This time, the recipient of the State’s unforgiving brand of justice was Marvin Wilson, convicted in the shooting death of Jerry Robert Williams in 1992. What makes this execution unsettling — well, more unsettling than some others — is the fact that Wilson had an IQ of just 61, substantially below average, and had been declared “intellectually disabled” by a court-appointed neuropsychologist.

Certainly, intelligence — or lack thereof — is no excuse for murder. Even someone of severely limited intelligence can and should understand that taking another’s life is wrong. But is it also possible that such an individual may have less control over their actions, and may be less culpable? Assuming Wilson was actually guilty and was not just another victim of wrongful conviction (like hundreds of others who have been exonerated in recent years), might it not have been appropriate in this case for the State to temper justice with mercy?

Englewood Four Exonerated

This month, four men from the Chicago area, dubbed the Englewood Four, were exonerated for the 1994 murder and rape of a sex worker after the State’s Attorney’s Office announced that it was dismissing the indictments against them. Their convictions were overturned after new DNA evidence implicated another man with a long history of murdering and assaulting sex workers.

Michael Saunders, Harold Richardson, Terrill Swift, and Vincent Thames, who were all between fifteen and eighteen years old at the time of their convictions, and Jerry Fincher, eighteen, were charged with the November 1994 strangulation murder and rape of Nina Glover, a sex worker, in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago. In mid-March 1995, after all leads in the case had dried up, police claim that Fincher walked into the precinct to voluntarily provide information about Glover’s murder to help gain “some consideration” for a friend of his who was in custody on a drug charge. According to the police, after two days of interrogation, Fincher confessed to the murder, also implicating Saunders, Richardson, Swift, and Thames. Police arrested and interrogated the other four, securing confessions, which were wildly inconsistent with each other. Despite the fact that all five supposedly admitted to having sexual intercourse with the victim, pre-trial DNA testing on semen recovered from the victim matched an unknown male and excluded all five teenagers. Rather than continue with the investigation to identify the source of the semen, however, the state went forward with the prosecution of the five young men.

The judge in Fincher’s case ruled that his statement was coerced and therefore inadmissible. Since there was no other evidence linking Fincher to the crime, prosecutors were forced to dismiss the charges against him. Saunders, Richardson, and Swift were all convicted at trial based on the strength of their so-called confessions and were sentenced to at least 30 years in prison. After seeing his three co-defendants lose at trial, Thames pled guilty and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Josh Tepfer of the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, commented, “Tragically, today’s exonerations follow on the heels of the exonerations of four Dixmoor men and Juan Rivera in Lake County, all of which involved police induced false confessions of teenagers. Let’s hope the damage these prosecutions have caused has finally forced the State’s Attorney’s Office to recognize that it can no longer ignore this problem. Let’s also hope that the law enforcement will finally learn that aggressive interrogation tactics used against children too often result in false confessions.”

Stuart Chanen, a former prosecutor who now works on exoneration cases at the Valorem Law Group, asked, “How many false confession cases are we going to have to see before the state decides to do something about this epidemic? Not only did these men spend years behind bars for a crime they didn’t commit, but while they were locked up, the real perpetrator was out murdering and terrorizing other women.”

With files from the Innocence Project.

Who Do You Blame?

To just about everyone’s shock, dismay, and even anger, Casey Anthony was found not guilty in the death of her daughter. Immediately after the jury delivered their verdict, armchair attorneys began analyzing the case, trying to determine what went wrong.

Did the prosecution stumble? Did they over-reach? Should they have pursued a lesser charge? Should they have pursued the same charge but not sought the death penalty?

Was the defense just too strong? (During the trial, not a few observers referred to Anthony’s lead defense lawyer Jos� Baez as Jos� Bozo.)

Did the jury misunderstand their charge? Were they somehow duped by Anthony?

Now, after the dust has begun to settle, some jury members have revealed that they did not in any way believe Casey Anthony was innocent, but they didn’t feel the prosecution had presented enough evidence to convict her.

This raises another factor; the type and quality of the evidence presented.

In this day of graphic and tech-filled TV crime shows, some people have come to believe that every case must be settled with conclusive, proof-positive DNA evidence. We’ve become used to seeing crime scene detectives and forensic pathologists answering any and all questions about a case in precise detail, without hesitancy, in neat forty-two minute segments, one hour if you include commercials.

Perhaps we don’t understand that real criminal investigations aren’t usually so cut-and-dried and that “beyond a reasonable doubt” doesn’t mean “beyond any doubt.”

In any case, those who were disappointed by the outcome of the Casey Anthony trial may have to be content with the knowledge that, as one observer put it, “Karma is a bitch.”