Is Half The Story Enough?

We’re now half-way through the Casey Anthony trial. That is, the prosecution is about to rest its case and, beginning in the next day or so, the defense will begin presenting its case.

The testimony has been fascinating. It’s included statements and photographs from forensic experts, and even video recordings of the accused in jail. But equally interesting — and equally disturbing — is the reaction of the general public. Most comments from readers on news sites reporting on the case are unanimous in condemning the woman accused of murdering her young daughter. Granted, the prosecution has presented some compelling evidence, including numerous lies from the defendant. But the defense has yet to be heard.

Will opinions change when we hear Casey’s side of the story?

The Changing Face Of Capital Punishment

This month two news items presented a stunning contrast in the world of crime and punishment.

In Ohio, USA, Johnnie Baston became the first person in the United States to be executed with the single-dose drug pentobarbital.

Most lethal-injection executions are performed using the drug sodium thiopental, but faced with a nationwide shortage the country is looking for alternatives. Pentobarbital has been used in lethal injections before, but only as the first drug of a three-drug cocktail. It has also been used to euthanize animals, but this is the first time it’s gone solo in a human execution.

A couple of states over, in Illinois, we find a different take on the preferred method of execution: There now isn’t any.

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn has signed legislation abolishing capital punishment in the state and commuting the sentence for the 15 men still on death row. This comes just over a decade after one of Quinn’s predecessors, Governor George Ryan, placed a temporary halt on executions when 20 death-row inmates were exonerated of the charges against them.

Not everyone is happy with this change in legislation. Some believe that execution should still be on the books for “extreme” cases. But isn’t every murder extreme? And isn’t is just as possible for mistakes to result in wrongful convictions in “extreme” cases as they are in … what? … “normal” crimes? Perhaps the critics would be happier in Ohio.

A Sad Day, And Not Just For The Kid

On his last day in office, outgoing New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson has captured news headlines by deciding not to issue a pardon for Billy the Kid. Richardson made the news earlier by reporting that he was reviewing the matter and that he may indeed grant a posthumous pardon to the 21 year-old outlaw. Billy died 129 years ago, shot by Sheriff Pat Garrett.

There is some question about how culpable Henry McCarty was. (Billy went by a number of names, starting with Henry McCarty at birth but also using the aliases William H. Bonney and Henry Antrim.) Did he really kill the 21 people legend says he did? Was he really promised a pardon in exchange for testimony by then territorial Governor Lew Wallace? Did he live up to his end of that bargain?

Whatever the answers are, the truly sad part of this is that there are men still alive and still incarcerated for crimes they didn’t commit. The Innocence Network reports that 29 such men were exonerated this year alone. But there are many more, and each deserves as much attention as The Kid.

Executed For A Hair That Wasn’t His

On December 7, 2000, Claude Jones was executed for the liquor store murder of Allen Hilzendager. Jones’ conviction was based largely on two pieces of evidence: the testimony of one of Jones’ co-defendants, Timothy Mark Jordan, and microscopic analysis of a small hair found on the store counter near Hilzendager’s body.

There were at least two problems with this evidence.

First, Jordan’s trial testimony conflicted with his grand jury testimony. During trial, Jordan claimed that Jones had confessed to him, but in front of the grand jury he said that a third co-defendant, Kerry Dixon, had fingered Jones as the shooter. Later, Jordan admitted in a signed affidavit that Jones had not confessed to him, and that he had been pressured to make this claim by police who threatened him with the death sentence. Jordan received a 10-year sentence for his cooperation.

Second, microscopic hair analysis is not conclusive. A 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences explains that “no scientifically accepted statistics exist about the frequency with which particular characteristics of hair are distributed in the population. There appears to be no uniform standards on the number of features on which hairs must agree before an examiner may declare a ‘match.'”

In other words, it’s impossible to say with scientific accuracy that one hair matches another, based on the way they appear under a microscope. Yet, this is exactly what the prosecution’s expert witness, chemist Stephen Robertson, claimed at Jones’ trial. Oddly, Robertson had earlier insisted the hair sample wasn’t suitable for making a comparison, and then, after the trial, he couldn’t explain why he had changed his mind.

After exhausting all other avenues of appeal, Jones sought DNA testing on the hair sample. But he was out of time, already on death-row. So he requested a stay of execution so testing could be performed. But then-Governor George Bush denied the stay, although he apparently didn’t realize Jones was requesting DNA testing. (Bush had, in the past, indicated a willingness to use DNA testing whenever possible.) The General Counsel who conveyed Jones’ request to Bush failed to mention that it was to allow time for the tests.

Now, ten years after Claude Jones was executed, the Innocence Project has managed to have that hair sample properly tested.

It was not Jones’.

How much is freedom worth?

How much is freedom worth? This past month, two men found out. In Ontario, Canada, William Mullins-Johnson spent 12 years in prison for the rape and murder of his niece, based largely on the testimony of forensic pathologist Dr. Charles Smith.

After irregularities were found in many of Smith’s reports, an investigation was launched that ultimately led to Smith being removed from his position for incompetence and several cases in which he testified — including Mullins-Johnson’s — being reviewed. That review then led to the charges against Mullins-Johnson being dropped.

In compensation for his time spent behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit, along with untold emotional distress and damage to his family, the Ontario government just awarded Mullins-Johnson $4.25-million.

Other people who were likewise convicted on the weight of Smith’s testimony may also be compensated, once their cases are reviewed.

At the same time, in the United States, Alan Newton has been awarded $18.5 million by the state of New York for the nearly 22 years he spent in prison, also wrongfully convicted of rape and murder. Newton was cleared, as so many others have been recently, by DNA evidence. But it took 11 years and four formal court filings before authorities found the victim’s rape kit and provided it to Newton’s defense.

The jury that ruled the city of New York had violated Newton’s constitutional rights also found two police officers liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress for failing to produce Newton’s evidence when requested.

Still, Newton may not receive his money, at least for a while; New York City’s Law Department plans on appealing the judgement.