Innocence Network Annual Report

Keith Findley

The 22 wrongful convictions detailed in the
Innocence Network’s 2012 report are tragic
reminders of how much work is still needed to
uncover and prevent these terrible injustices.
A number of cases in this year’s report point to
many injustices yet to be discovered. In the case
of Willie Grimes, who was wrongly convicted of
rape, prosecutors overcame an extremely poor
identification by the victim, who in court first
mistakenly identified Grime’s attorney as her
attacker, by presenting the testimony of a lab
analyst who claimed that hairs found on the
victim’s sheets were microscopically consistent
to Grimes’s and that it would be rare to find
two individuals in the general population with
the same microscopic hair characteristics. DNA
evidence eventually proved the analyst wrong, as
it did in two other DNA exonerations this year
involving faulty hair analysis. Thanks in part to an
investigative series in the Washington Post, the FBI
announced that it would undertake a widespread
review of cases involving hair analysis, which, given
the lack of science behind this forensic discipline,
is likely to uncover many more wrongful
David Lee Gavitt served more than 25 years
for the arson murder of his wife and two
daughters before prosecutors agreed to vacate
his conviction because it was based on outdated
arson science. Gavitt’s case and that of Cameron
Todd Willingham (who was convicted by similarly
flawed evidence and executed in Texas) represent
just the tip of the iceberg of the nation’s wrongful
arson prosecutions, which Network projects
are beginning to litigate. For decades, fire
investigators gave testimony about the origin of
fires that had no scientific basis.
Drayton Witt served a decade in prison for the
murder of a five-month-old boy, who likely died
because of complications from the medication he
was prescribed for the flu, rather than by “shaken
baby syndrome” as the prosecution originally
claimed. (Even the original medical examiner
eventually changed his opinion, and the state
moved to dismiss the charges.) Fortunately, the
medical community is finally speaking out about
errors in diagnosing this condition, which has
led to many wrongful convictions. Innocence
Network projects are seeking cases from people
who have been wrongly convicted in this way,
and the Network recently hired its first full-time
attorney to work exclusively on this issue.
While Network projects used a wide variety of
tactics to prove innocence in these cases, it’s
noteworthy that nearly half continue to be DNA
exonerations. In fact, 2012 saw the 300th person
become exonerated through DNA evidence. In
the two decades since DNA technology has been
used in criminal prosecutions, courts have come to
recognize its incredible power to prove innocence.
While almost all exonerations require years of
hard work, DNA, when available is often the
swiftest path to exoneration. Unfortunately, it is
available in less than 10% of serious felonies.
So as you read about the tragic miscarriages of
justice contained in this report, remember that
in many ways those profiled are the lucky ones.
For every person who walked out of prison a free
individual this year, there are many more still
incarcerated, hoping that 2013 will be the year
they finally get the break that will prove their