Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project Fights Wrongful Convictions, Mends Lives
April 17, 2013
On the night of July 9, 1977, 16-year old Cathleen Crowell told a police patrol officer that she had been thrown into the backseat of a car by two men, while one tore her clothes, raped her and scratched several letters onto her stomach with a beer bottle. She wrongly identified Gary Dotson as her assailant and in 1979, he was wrongly convicted of rape and aggravated kidnapping. After serving eight years in prison, he was finally cleared of his conviction by DNA testing, the first in the nation. This emerging technology produced a wave and gave the criminal justice system “a reliable conviction of the guilty and exoneration of the innocent.”
In 2000, a group of District of Columbia attorneys formed the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project (MAIP) to identify and correct wrongful convictions in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia and to advocate for systemic changes that can prevent these injustices from happening in the future. So far, the Mid Atlantic Innocence Project has helped 12 men who were wrongfully convicted find justice.
Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, Staff Attorney for the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, believes that minorities are more vulnerable to wrongful convictions, but she doesn’t see any relations between the two. “To the extent that racial minorities are overrepresented in the criminal justice system and many misidentifications are based on cross racial identification, minorities would appear to be more vulnerable to wrongful convictions,” said Tafti. “But there is no data on race-based motivation and little data on whether or not there is a causal relationship between race and wrongful convictions.”
Tafti won the first post-conviction DNA exoneration in the District when a DC Superior Court vacated Donald Gates’ conviction for the rape and murder of a young college student and released him from prison after serving 28 years of what was essentially a life sentence.
Since 1973, 133 people in 26 states have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence. Police misconduct was a factor in half of all convictions eventually exonerated using DNA evidence. Twenty-seven states, the federal government and the District of Columbia have passed laws to compensate people who have been exonerated. Two hundred and fifty one people have now been exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing. Out of those 251 people, 151 are African American.
One African American, Thomas Haynesworth, was convicted of rape and sexual assault in 1984. He served 27 years until finally being released in 2011, after DNA testing proved his innocent.
Tafti, who worked on his case, explains what is required to stop victims like Haynesworth from being wrongfully convicted. “In the post-conviction context, we need robust rules that favor discovery so that we have the leads to re-investigate cases or find evidence and cooperation on the part of the government,” said Tafti. “In the pre-trial or trial context, similarly, some form of robust discovery would appear to be essential, because the rules currently governing police and prosecutorial obligations are not functioning.”
But even Tafti admits that those steps sometimes aren’t enough. “It is not a solution to state that prosecutors should have open file policies – it is not enough, because that solution presumes that police officers would investigate every lead, including ones that lead to people other than the suspect, that they would keep an open mind and refrain from identifying a suspect until the evidence dictates,” said Tafti. “That solution presumes that the internal pressures of a police department to close cases is removed so that police officers could keep an open mind longer, that police would record all of their investigation and turn it all over to the prosecution, that the prosecution would recognize evidence that might be exculpatory (and avoid tunnel vision), that prosecutors would in fact put that information into a file accessible by defense counsel, and that defense counsel would recognize and adequately investigate those leads.”
Tafti believes that there are a number of reasons for wrongful convictions. “This is a very interesting question and one that is hotly debated,” said Tafti. “What is clear is that there are certain problems which appear with regularity in cases of wrongful convictions, such as, eyewitness misidentification, false confessions, ineffective defense counsel, police or prosecutorial misconduct, bad forensic science, and informant (or “snitch”) testimony.”
Tafti also explains what problems remain in the gray area. “A study funded by the National Institute for Justice recently found that three of these problems appear to cause wrongful convictions (as opposed to being wrongly accused),” said Tafti. “The failure of police and prosecutors to recognize and share with the defense evidence which could cast doubt on a person’s guilt, weak prosecution cases, and weak defense cases – all of which seem to lead to tunnel vision.”
Tafti continued, “As a general matter, it seems to me information is what is missing in wrongful convictions cases. Information about the police investigation, information about the prosecution’s case, information that the defendant may have that either is not communicated to counsel or not investigated adequately by counsel. . . In other words, the adversarial culture of our legal system would need to shift.”
Although the numbers of exonerated people are increasing, those who are exonerated are extremely lucky. In most cases, DNA evidence is not available to prove a prisoner’s innocence for different reasons (the case did not involve biological evidence or because the biological evidence was destroyed). To some, that may be very discouraging but people like Tafti at the Mid Atlantic Innocence Project are working diligently to overturn the majority of this convictions.
Tafti sees the Mid Atlantic Innocence Project expanding in future and taking on more cases. “For a small organization, we are proud of our accomplishments,” said Tafti. “We all hope that we will continue to grow, to help more clients, and to achieve meaningful reform in the criminal justice system.”