State-Wide Hair Microscopy Review:

Hair microscopy has been used as a forensic comparison technique for nearly 100 years. For decades, analysts all over the country have testified that hair from a crime scene originated from a particular defendant. However, it is not an exact science. Currently, there have been more than 80 individuals exonerated after flawed hair evidence had been used to convict them.

The Arizona Justice Project and other state agency partners have been awarded a National Institute of Justice grant to conduct a state-wide hair review. The goal of the review is to:

  • Identify cases where hair microscopy led to the conviction.
  • Review the testimony of analysts and attorneys who may have overstated the science behind a hair microscopy “match.”
  • Identify cases where DNA analysis can be done on hair evidence to resolve a claim of innocence.

The Task Force includes ASU Post-Conviction Clinic Director, Katherine Puzauskas, the Arizona DPS Crime Lab, the Phoenix Crime Lab, Arizona Attorney General’s Office, the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission, and AJP’s Executive Director, Lindsay Herf. The review has started, and it is estimated that more than 500 cases will be reviewed by the Task Force. To any innocent person whose case is included in this review, this work matters. It is estimated that approximately 5-10% of the cases reviewed will be probative to resolving a claim of innocence.

DNA Case Review and Litigation:

The Arizona Justice Project investigates post-conviction cases where the testing of DNA evidence could show innocence.

The application of DNA analysis to criminal cases in Arizona began in the mid-1990s. Cases prior to that time did not have the benefit of DNA evidence. Since that time, DNA testing technology has evolved. Where labs used to require a quarter size of semen, blood, or saliva to get a DNA profile, now the technology can identify skin cells that are invisible to the human eye and obtain a full DNA profile. The advancements in this technology have led to hundreds of exonerations across the country.

DNA testing helps exonerate the wrongly convicted and assists public safety by identifying true perpetrators. Many of the cases we review are decades old and the evidence has never been subjected to DNA analysis. We face numerous hurdles in locating the physical evidence for DNA testing. Many defendants are not aware of what biological evidence exists from their case and are not current with advancements in DNA analysis. Our job is to identify cases where DNA evidence is probative to determining who committed the crime, locate the evidence items, access the evidence through a court order or consent by the prosecution, submit the evidence for DNA analysis, and where DNA results point to innocence, seek to overturn the conviction.

Arizona DNA Exonerees (true perpetrator identified in the DNA CODIS database)

“Non” DNA Case Review and Litigation:

The Arizona Justice Project reviews and litigates cases where a wrongful conviction occurred but where DNA evidence is not available for testing or where the testing of DNA evidence would not be dispositive of innocence. Cases under this program could include convictions that rest on witness misidentification, outdated and/or flawed forensic science, false confessions, prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective assistance of counsel, or government misconduct.

1. Prosecutorial Misconduct

Prosecutorial misconduct occurs when a prosecutor breaks a law or a code of professional ethics in the course of a prosecution. Prosecutors are entrusted with determining who will be held accountable when a crime occurs. Prosecutors work with police to gather evidence and build a case against a suspect with the goal of convincing a jury of the suspect’s guilt. Prosecutors are charged as the administrators of justice and hold a great deal of power. In certain instances, prosecutors have overstepped their boundaries by failing to disclose exculpatory evidence, presenting witnesses that testify falsely, or exercise the power of prosecution in a vindictive manner.

2. Child Death Cases (Shaken Baby Syndrome)

Numerous people have been wrongly convicted or have lost custody of their children based on a diagnosis of “Shaken Baby Syndrome” (SBS), a hypothesis that a triad of medical findings (brain swelling, brain bleed, and retinal hemorrhage) are caused almost exclusively by violent shaking or similar acceleration/deceleration forces. The SBS proponents believe SBS can be reliably diagnosed even if the baby shows no outward signs of abuse, such as bruises, grip marks, or neck injuries, and even if the caretaker provides an explanation such as longstanding medical problems, recent illness, or accidental trauma (such as a household fall). SBS rapidly went from merely a hypothesis about one possible cause of unexplained intracranial injury in babies to proof beyond a reasonable doubt that shaking is almost always the only possible cause of such injuries.

However, experts in the medical and scientific community have begun to question whether SBS findings can reliably distinguish between intentional and accidental trauma, and whether shaking is even capable of causing the symptoms that – for 30 years – have been equated with violent shaking. Notably, we are now aware that numerous medical conditions, illness, and even an accidental short fall can produce the triad findings and are not caused from shaking but rather are the result of natural or accidental occurrences. The Arizona Justice Project takes on these cases due to the concern that SBS has not been adequately validated and, in being over diagnosed, has snared up innocent people in the process.

3. Arson

The purpose of a fire investigation is to determine whether a fire was accidental or intentional. Until recently, arson cases often relied on now widely discredited methods of fire cause analysis. Early fire investigations were based on apprentice based teaching by investigators experienced in fire analysis or firefighting. This knowledge was largely based on observation and intuition and not actual science, and there were no consistent requirements for what types of science background or educational background an investigator was required to have. Within the past few years, the effects of a failed appreciation of basic fire science by apparently experienced fire investigators have led to cases in which misconduct has been demonstrated. In the past few years, three Phoenix Fire Department investigators have been under scrutiny for their conduct while investigating “arson” cases.

Manifest Injustice Case Review and Litigation:

The Arizona Justice Project reviews and litigates cases where a manifest injustice occurred. Cases under this program include issues involving juvenile brain development, battered woman’s syndrome, excessive sentencing, perinatal mood disorders, or imminent danger of death.

Juvenile Lifers

The Arizona Justice Project continues its effort to identify and assist juvenile offenders sentenced to life or natural life in prison and acts as a clearinghouse for lawyers who represent juvenile lifers in state and federal court or before the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency. We advocate for the elimination of life without the possibility of parole sentences for juvenile offenders in Arizona and have given presentations on this topic including to the Arizona Juvenile Justice Commission. We have also provided information to law makers for future policy reform and legislation.

We believe a sentence of life without the possibility of parole or a sentence of "de facto" life for a juvenile offender is a manifest injustice. After Miller v. Alabama was decided by the United States Supreme Court in 2012, which held mandatory-life-without-parole sentences are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders, we began to identify juvenile offenders in Arizona who we believed were entitled to relief under Miller. Since then, we have assisted many of those individuals with filing the appropriate paperwork in the court system and supporting their claims with amicus briefs and have collaborated with many other organizations on these issues.

AJP has always been concerned about juvenile offenders serving life sentences, especially in light of scientific evidence that the adolescent brain is not fully developed. This research was the basis for the United States Supreme Court's decision in Miller and other cases involving juvenile offenders.

Re-Entry Program

The Arizona Justice Project is currently partnered with Arizona State University’s (ASU) School of Social Work to facilitate successful pathways for re-entry for post-conviction defendants. Guided by the leadership of Dr. Jose Ashford, Professor of Social Work and Director of Offender Diversion and Sentencing Solutions, the reentry team, is composed of ASU graduate students pursuing Master Degrees in Social Work(MSW). With the supervision of a social worker holding a MSW, the reentry team assists our clients who are post-release with employment, healthcare, housing, counseling and other services and supports as needed.

The Re-Entry Team also works with our clients who are not released, by conducting assessments and establishing plans for release based on their interviews and reviews of the client's background information. Communication between the re-entry team and our pre-release clients consist of both in-person and phone correspondences. The team continues to succeed in helping our clients prepare for life outside of prison by helping clients identify appropriate housing, prepare resumes and identify suitable employment, identify counseling services, and by assisting them to reconnect with their families and friends who are willing to support their adjustment to life outside of prison.

The Re-Entry Team is an invaluable part of the work we do in helping our clients be successful once released by creating a supportive network, which they can turn to for assistance.