The nation’s largest post-conviction review of forensic evidence is currently underway after the FBI admits that the nearly three decade practice of using visual comparisons for hair samples and bite marks as admissible evidence in court cases was based on critically flawed science. Internal review by the FBI discovered that reports of matching hair samples were proved to be false nearly eleven percent of the time when reexamined using DNA testing.
According to the story published in The Washington Post, of the 268 cases that have been reviewed, 95 percent of the cases had forensic analyses skewed to favor prosecutors. Of those 268 cases, 32 cases involved inmates on death row, and 14 of the 32 inmates had already died or were executed before their cases were reevaluated. There are still nearly 2,500 more cases that are up for review in light of these recent revelations. Thanks to the hard work and dedication on the behalf of organizations like the Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), assisting the government with the review of these cases, over 150 individuals found guilty based on invalid forensic evidence alone have been exonerated through the use of DNA testing. These are 5 of their stories.
In 1998 Christopher Ochoa was employed at a Pizza Hut restaurant, where fellow employee, Nancy DePriest, was brutally raped and murdered during a robbery. Following a hunch that whomever had committed the crime had keys to the restaurant, police interrogated Christopher Ochoa. Under pressure from the El Paso, TX police, Ochoa confessed to the crime and implicated his friend, Richard Danziger, as his accomplice. A pubic hair found on the floor was analyzed and concluded to belong to Danziger, while the semen collected from the body of DePriest was said to belong to Ochoa. Both received life sentences for murder and sexual assault.
Years after the incident, Achim Marino, an inmate serving out three life sentences in another prison began writing letters to Governor Bush, as well as the district attorney’s office. Marino had found God while in prison and as part of his participation in a 12-step program he was obligated to confess to his crimes. Marino said he had no idea why anyone would confess to a crime that he committed, but within the letters he included details that only the perpetrator would know. Marino sent a number of these letters, often to find them completely ignored, until a detail included within one of the letters sparked the police’s interest. Reaching out to the Innocence Project, the semen sample originally used to convict Ochoa was reexamined using DNA testing. Ochoa and Danziger were both exonerated in 2002 after the sample was found to match neither of the men. Ochoa claims his reason for the confession and implication of Danziger was due to police coercion and threats of the prosecution seeking the death penalty against him.
Chris Ochoa has since graduated with a law degree from the University of Wisconsin. He now works with the Innocence Project, helping other wrongfully convicted inmates find justice.
After serving 15 years on death row for the rape and murder of his girlfriend’s 3-year-old daughter, Kennedy Brewer is now a free man. On May 3, 1992, Brewer was home alone with his girlfriend’s daughter, as well as he and his girlfriend’s own two children. Sometime during the night Christine, the 3-year-old daughter of Brewer’s girlfriend, was found missing. Two days later the child’s body was found in a creek, roughly 500 yards from the home. Since Brewer was the only person, with the exception of children, present in the home when the crime occurred, he was naturally a primary suspect in the case.
Prosecution claimed that there was no signs of forced entry, though a broken window near where Christine slept could offer a simple explanation for the disappearance of the child. An autopsy of the child’s body allowed investigators to collect semen samples, but it was determined to be insufficient to undergo testing. Instead the most damning piece of evidence used to convict Brewer were a number of bite marks on the child’s body.
A discredited forensic odonotologist, Dr. Richard Souviron – notable for also testifying at Ted Bundy’s trial – claimed that the bite marks were without a doubt Brewer’s. What stood out about the marks is that there were no impressions of the bottom teeth. Dr. Souviron explained that only Brewer’s top two teeth were able to leave an impression, highly unusual to anyone that has ever bitten into a piece of meat and has seen their own teeth marks. Although Souviron was removed from the forensic panel at the time of Brewer’s sentencing, his testimony was ruled admissible. Brewer was sentenced to death for capital murder and sexual battery.
In 2001, DNA testing conducted on the semen sample recovered from the victim’s body determined that Brewer did not rape the child. Brewer was removed from death row and detained for a re-trial, where Brewer sat an additional five years. In 2007 Brewer was finally allowed release with his trial still pending. During the re-trial it was shown that the semen sample matched a man convicted of a similar murder, which occurred just 18 months before the murder of Christine, and was an initial suspect in child’s abduction and murder. The man, Justin Albert Johnson, confessed to the murder and Brewer was allowed to walk free in March of 2008.
The conviction of Roy Criner seemed to be an open and shut case. On the day of 16-year-old Deanna Ogg’s rape and murder, Criner was heard telling friends that he had “done something bad”. According to Criner he spotted a young girl hitchhiking and offered her a ride. He claims the he immediately began thinking about having sex with the girl, so Criner pulled off onto a road just behind the local high school, grabbed the girl by her hair, forced her to have sex, threatened her with a screwdriver, then left the girl there by the side of the road. The same day, at around 7:30pm, the body of Deanna Ogg is discovered by a couple of teenage boys riding 4-wheelers in a densely wooded area close to where Criner claims he dropped the girl off.
Samples of semen and blood were taken from the victim’s body. Shoddy testing and pathology seemed to point to Criner. A medical examiner also testified that the screwdriver mentioned in the story Criner had told his friends could have easily caused the puncture wounds found around Ogg’s neck area. With all evidence seemingly indicating Criner was responsible for Deanna Ogg’s brutal murder and rape, a jury found him guilty of aggravated rape and sentenced him to 99 years in prison.
In 1997, Criner submitted samples in order to conduct DNA testing, hopeful that his case could be retried. DNA taken from Ogg’s body and a cigarette butt found on the crime scene excluded Criner as a possible suspect. Criner was allowed to present the new evidence, but denied a retrial by state officials on that grounds that all known evidence was sufficient beyond a reasonable doubt that he was guilty of Ogg’s murder. Criner saw little hope of any of the new evidence supporting his defense ever seeing the light of day, until his case gained the support of defense lawyers specializing in wrongful convictions and attracted national media attention.
After serving 10 of his 99 year sentence, a District Court Judge, the prosecutor, and the sheriff all referred Criner’s case to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. The board voted unanimously (18-0), along with the support of Governor George W. Bush, for Criner to be grated the permission to be pardoned.
Overnight factory worker and mother of four, Barbara Pelkey, was found raped and badly beaten to death at her place of employment. The investigation of Pelkey’s murder went on for over a year with no suspects implicated in the murder. Two informants went to police and claimed that 18-year-old Kenneth Ireland, with the aid of two other men, had committed the crime. Included within the informants’ report were details of the murder alleged to have come from Ireland. A third witness came forward and also filed a statement claiming that Ireland had confessed to the brutal rape and beating of Barbara Pelkey, but admitted that she was drunk at the time and may have imagined Ireland’s confession. The jury was split in Ireland’s case, but ultimately found him guilty based on circumstantial evidence. The other two men indicated as Ireland’s accomplices never stood trial. One died before he could be tried, while the other was never charged in the crime.
Ireland filed his first appeal, based on the defense’s assertion that the informants came forward about Ireland in order to collect reward money and the belief that he was tried unfarily after Ireland’s attorney was forbidden from presenting evidence indicating another suspect in the case, but was ultimately denied retrial. In 1997 advances in DNA testing allowed Ireland to have samples recovered from the crime scene to be reanalyzed. New evidence, including the DNA evidence indicating that Ireland was not a match for the samples found on Pelkey, contributed to Ireland’s exoneration after serving over 20 years in prison.
With the help of Ireland’s attorney, Barbara Pelkey’s real murderer was found and sentenced to 60 years in prison. Ireland was also able to receive a $6million settlement from the state of Connecticut for his wrongful incarceration.
The Central Park Five
The case of the Central Park Five involved a group of five teenagers, all of African American and Hispanic descent, who were accused of attacking and raping a Wall Street investment banker as she was jogging through New York’s Central Park. The victim was found unconscious. Her skull was fractured and she had suffered from 85 percent blood loss. After spending twelve days in a coma, she was able to make a full recovery, but was unable to remember most of the details involving her assault. Near the scene a rock was found covered in blood and hair. It was believed that the assailant(s) had used the rock to bludgeon the woman.
The five boys accused of the woman’s rape and battery – Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Anton McCray, Kevin Richardson, and Korey Wise – were already being held in police custody on an unrelated charge. The boys were seen throwing rocks and harassing other patrons at the park that day. The boys behavior was described by investigators as a “wolf pack”, ravaging through the park and attacking any innocent bystander that stood in their path. When the jogger – later identified as Trisha Meili – was discovered, all eyes were on the five juveniles.
The boys were subjected to intense and prolonged periods of interrogation by police. Eventually three of the boys cracked and provided video tapped confessions while being detained by investigators. Each of the confessions provided by the boys differed in times, location, and other details concerning the rape of Trisha Meili. In addition to the confessions, forensic evidence such as hairs found on the victim were determined to be “similar” to Kevin Richardson’s hair. The boys all received maximum sentencing for juvenile offenders, each spending between 6 and 13 years in a correctional facility.
The boys, now men, were able to have their convictions overturned in 2002, when career criminal and murderer Matias Reyes confessed to the attack and rape of Trisha Meili that day in Central Park. The hair samples originally used to convict the five young men, along with semen samples taken from Meili’s rape kit were all a match to Reyes. The case has since lead to questions raised on the vulnerability of juveniles in regards to police coercion and the probability rate of false confessions made by juveniles under police interrogation.