IN THE NEWS: Woman Exonerated After Serving 10 Years for Manslaughter Conviction

xonPicture: Vanessa Gathers, 58, with Ken Thompson, the Brooklyn district attorney, after her manslaughter conviction was vacated on Tuesday. Credit Andrew Kelly for The New York Times        

In a gray suit, her short hair neatly curled, Vanessa Gathers sat in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn on Tuesday, beaming as the judge spoke words she had waited nearly two decades to hear: The manslaughter conviction for which she had spent 10 years in prison was vacated, the judge said, after an investigation revealed that her confession to the crime was false.

Ms. Gathers, 58, is the first woman to have been exonerated by the Conviction Review Unit, a special unit created by the Brooklyn district attorney to look into scores of cases linked to Louis Scarcella, a retired detective whose tactics led to the wrongful convictions of more than a dozen people, according to the district attorney’s office. The unit is examining 100 cases, many of them involving Mr. Scarcella.

Mark Hale, an assistant district attorney, told the judge that an investigation into Ms. Gathers’s case had determined that she had been wrongfully convicted and that her confession had been coaxed, fed to her by Mr. Scarcella.

“We have grave doubts and, in fact, do not believe that it was true,” Mr. Hale said.

After the hearing, the Brooklyn district attorney, Ken Thompson, spoke outside the courtroom. “These wrongful convictions represent a systemic failure, a failure by prosecutors, defense attorneys, by judges, by the system,” he said. “These wrongful convictions destroy lives, and no matter what happens, Ms. Gathers will not get back those 10 years.”

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Sharing: Prisoners Exonerated, Prosecutors Exposed

FACT: On average, 3 convicted people are now exonerated of their crimes every week.
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Travis Dove for The New York Times

In 2015, 149 people convicted of crimes large and small — from capital murder to burglary — were exonerated. It is the highest yearly total since this grim form of record-keeping began, in 1989.

In that time, there have been at least 1,733 exonerations across the country, and the pace keeps picking up. On average, about three convicted people are now exonerated of their crimes every week, according to the annual report of the National Registry of Exonerations. The registry defines an exoneration as a case in which someone convicted of a crime is cleared of all charges based on new evidence of innocence.

The individual cost to those wrongly convicted is steep: Last year’s group spent an average of more than 14 years behind bars. Five had been sentenced to death. Amazingly, half of the exonerations involved cases in which no crime occurred at all — for example, a conviction of murder by arson that later turned out to be based on faulty fire science.

Equally eye-opening is the list of reasons behind these miscarriages of justice. For instance, 27 of last year’s exonerations were for convictions based on a false confession. This happened most often in homicide cases in which the defendant was a juvenile, intellectually disabled, mentally ill or some combination of the three. In nearly half of all 2015 exonerations, the defendant pleaded guilty before trial.

These numbers are a bracing reminder that admissions of guilt are unreliable far more often than is generally believed. Some defendants, especially the young or mentally impaired, can be pushed to admit guilt when they are innocent. Some with prior criminal records may not be able to afford bail but don’t want to spend months in pretrial detention or risk a much longer sentence if they choose to go to trial.

Official misconduct — including perjury, withholding of exculpatory evidence and coercive interrogation practices — occurred in three of every four exonerations involving homicide, and it was an important factor in many other cases as well.

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Court cases challenge ‘Shaken Baby’ diagnosis

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Drayton Witt pauses for a moment at his home Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016, in Surprise, Ariz. An Arizona judge in 2012 dismissed a murder charge against Witt, after he spent 10 years in prison, after the county medical examiner said developments in the understanding of shaken baby syndrome and some of the conditions that mimic its symptoms contributed to his decision to reclassify the death of his girlfriend’s infant son as natural, not a homicide. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Court cases challenge ‘Shaken Baby’ diagnosis, read more:  http://apne.ws/1PD6QoH

Prosecutor who sent innocent man to death row is disbarred

AUSTIN, Texas — A former prosecutor who used false testimony and withheld evidence to send a now-exonerated man to Texas’ death row has lost an appeal to overturn his disbarment.

The Dallas Morning News (http://bit.ly/1TPB1fq ) reports that the Board of Disciplinary Appeals on Monday upheld the decision of the State Bar of Texas to disbar Charles Sebesta. The board’s decision is final.

The bar revoked the Burleson County district attorney’s law license in June, finding he had engaged in prosecutorial misconduct in the case of Anthony Graves.

Graves was sentenced to death in 1994 in the slayings of six people in South Texas two years earlier. A federal appeals court reversed his conviction in 2006.

Graves spent 18 years in prison, including 12 on death row. He filed a complaint in January 2014.

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Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com