March for Freedom of Wrongful Convictions 2010 

On October 2, 2010, demonstrators are gathering in locations across America to raise awareness of wrongful convictions, spotlight the need for criminal justice reform, and support for a death penalty moratorium.

National Event Information

Demonstrations / events will take place at these locations:

If there is no event in your area, you can support this cause by:

Spreading the word about wrongful convictions and the need for criminal justice reform to your circle of friends, co-workers and acquaintances.

Sending an email, letter or calling your elected representatives to say that you are concerned about wrongful convictions and our justice system.

Demonstrations organized by grassroots volunteers representing these organizations:

Freedom March USA, Marching for Awareness of Wrongful Convictions

National Coalition for Criminal Justice Reform

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While I'm Waiting. 

ERICK WESTERVELT is waiting also, along with these people!

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“Just the facts, Ma’am” 
The old Dragnet TV program from the 1950’s starring Jack Webb as Detective Sgt. Joe Friday, was a popular weekly program.

While "Just the facts, ma'am" has come to be known as Dragnet's catchphrase, it was never actually uttered by Joe Friday. The closest lines were, "All we want are the facts, ma'am" and "All we know are the facts, ma'am".

Facts are what investigations are all about.

When a criminal investigative agency does not pay attention to, or accumulate the required facts in order to substantiate the accusations against an individual, it is a recipe for disaster.

Worse yet, is when that same agency also manipulates the facts in order to make an arrest and then continues to twist and massage the facts to justify their theory.

A graphic example of this procedure is often the theme of movies that depict a back woods cop, faced with a major crime that is beyond his capabilities to investigate properly.

In the movie My Cousin Vinny, the cop testifies at trial that the defendant stated to him, “I killed him!!!” However, the defendant’s actual intonation was much different upon uttering those words.

What really happened was when the cop accused the defendant of killing the clerk, the defendant replied in disbelief, “I killed him???”

This is a good example of twisting the facts by manipulating the expression or the phonetics.

In Erick Westervelt’s case, the detectives manipulated the writing of his statement and failed to corroborate any of the stories that he made up.

Westervelt claims that after two days and many hours of interrogation, he just wanted to go home. They kept telling him that it was just a fist fight and when he told them his story, he could go home. However, they kept manipulating the conversation by adding more information, yet at the same time, minimizing the victim’s injuries. They massaged things by saying, “You must have hit him with something other than just your fists because there was some cuts and blood”. Then they said, “Did you use something like a hatchet?” It all went downhill from there because Erick didn’t know the seriousness of the victim’s injuries.

Therefore, he concocted a tale about using a wooden souvenir tomahawk in response to them asking him if he used a hatchet.

Much like what the police did to Marty Tankleff, they lied and told Erick that they had eye witnesses and his fingerprints were found at the crime scene. Both individuals were convinced by detectives that they must have “blacked out” and committed the crime.

When someone is detained and interrogated for long periods of time, mental and physical fatigue sets in. Since the detectives control the situation, it becomes easier for them to manipulate the subject’s mind. Some individuals have a lower threshold of fatigue and succumb more quickly to the pressure. Before long, the subject will say and do anything with hopes of escaping that stressful environment.

Dr. Saul Kassin, Professor of Psychology at Williams College in Massachusetts, is considered an expert on police-induced, coerced confessions.

In Westervelt’s case, the manipulation continued even after he was being held for trial. The detectives seized the family’s home computer and proceeded to manipulate an erased Google search that none of the family made. At trial, Erick was accused of making the search in preparation to commit the crime.

The actual information contained in the search and associated websites, provided an extremely poor circumstantial possibility of a connection to the crime. That, along with extremely questionable eyewitness testimony was all that was offered because; after all, they had a signed false confession that, without a doubt, “proved” he was guilty.

“Where were the facts, Ma’am?”

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Life After Exoneration. 
Herman Atkins, Sr., and Calvin Johnson, Jr., spent a combined 27 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. Here, they describe the challenges faced by the exonerated after their release.

Read viewers comments on Innocence Project | Facebook.

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"There, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford." 
According to Wikipedia, John Bradford (1510–1555) was a prebendary of St. Paul's. He was an English Reformer and martyr best remembered for his utterance, "'There, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford." The words were uttered by Bradford while imprisoned in the Tower of London, when he saw a criminal on his way to execution.

Through the years, the phrase “There but for the grace of God, go I”, has been commonly used when referring to someone else's misfortune.

In 2007, two men were arrested and charged with a double homicide that took place in Troy, NY, in 2002. The foundation for the charges was based upon the statement of a “jailhouse snitch”.

On July 16, 2010, Rensselaer County Judge Robert Jacon agreed to dismiss an indictment against Terence Battiste and Bryan Berry in the deaths of Arica Lynn Schneider and Samuel Holley in light of doubts a recent DNA match has cast on the case.

Here are the newspaper articles that will provide the case information about how two innocent individuals almost paid the price for someone else’s crime.

In this case, these two "wrongfully charged" men, might have become "wrongfully convicted" men.

Now they can say, "There but for the grace of God (and DNA), go I"

What would the fate of these men been if the perpetrator’s DNA had not been discovered?

Needless to say, “The beat goes on”.

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Innocence Projects (Or Lack Thereof) 
There are a number of states around the country that have innocence projects, including New York. The projects are usually in the form of clinics established at law schools and staffed by volunteer law students under the supervision of law professors.

The intent is to have students gain skills in handling very difficult cases of wrongful convictions. These cases require an enormous amount of time and commitment, which usually is prohibitive to most law firms because of the lack of associated monetary resources. Some large firms have a pro bono department that provides relief to wrongly convicted inmates and in turn “gives back” to society.

There is no shortage of cases screaming for attention. Each project has its own guidelines and criteria for acceptance; most all require a level of indigence. The students also have to choose cases that indicate some element of success. Another consideration is accessibility to case information, thereby limiting the selection to the project’s close geographical area.

New York’s innocence projects are all located in the Metropolitan New York City area. Naturally, the cases that they handle are usually within that area. The exception is the Innocence Project, co-directed by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld in conjunction with The Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. Their criteria is restricted to DNA cases only and serves all states.

NCJ is proposing that some concerned reader(s) of this blog actually take the initiative to generate some interest within student bodies in upstate New York colleges and form an innocence project. Ideally, the project would be at a college that teaches law, however, there is nothing prohibiting a group of students investigating a claim of actual innocence and rallying behind their beliefs to bring meaningful attention to an inmate’s plight.

There are four law schools in upstate New York.

1. Albany Law School
2. Cornell Law School
3. Syracuse University College of Law
4. University at Buffalo Law School

Any one of these schools would be an excellent choice to organize an innocence project that would adopt and investigate the claims of injustice from upstate residents.

If this was to happen, then maybe Erick Westervelt’s claims of actual innocence would have a better chance of being acknowledged and dealt with. He has applied to several downstate projects to no avail. There is a long list of applicants ahead of him from that area.

Here are examples of what can be done when students are motivated.

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Witch Hunts and Trials 
The modern day witch hunt has evolved and adapted into a scenario that equates to the same exact reasoning that has existed throughout time. Wikipedia has a lot of information on how and where it all began to the present. One of their analogies is very appropriately fitting to Erick Westervelt’s case and others like it.

'Witch-hunt' has become a generic term, referring to any situation in which a 'guilty party' is, essentially, tried and convicted in absentia, without any 'firm' evidence—indeed, in a typical witch-hunt, guilt is presumed from the outset, and the focus of the hunt actually becomes getting the accused to admit his guilt. Often, these so-called 'confessions' are brought about by way of verbal trickery, or by questioning the loyalty or past conduct of the accused.

Because of the inaccurate accounts of the case released by the investigating police department and repeated by the media, Erick was considered guilty before he ever walked into the courtroom. Not to mention that the prosecutor expanded and perpetuated the myths and drove the final nail in the coffin with his unsubstantiated theory. As a result, the jury was overwhelmed by “verbal trickery” and so called “confessions”.

Another case, almost identical to Erick’s comes to mind because it preceded Erick’s by four years. It also took place in the northeast and not too far from the Salem Witch Trials of Massachusetts in the 1600’s.

It is the case of Chad Evans from Rochester, NH. He was accused and convicted of causing the death of his girlfriend’s 21 month old daughter in 2001. He was originally sentenced to 28 years in prison, but that was not enough for the prosecutor. The sentence was appealed via a brand new state law and his sentence was amended to life without parole.

That is the equivalent of pouring gasoline on and setting fire to the unconscious, rock-stoned, witch.

There were as many, if not more, questions raised and unanswered in Evans’ case. He is presently incarcerated in a New Hampshire prison and, like Erick, he has been relentlessly trying to prove his innocence.

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Freedom never tasted so good. 
“It didn't change who I was - I am an innocent man”, were the words of Frank Sterling last Wednesday after being incarcerated in a NY prison for nearly 19 years, for a crime that he did not commit.

Frank was 28 years old in 1991 when he falsely confessed to the murder of Viola Manville, 74, of Hilton, NY, a small community located northwest of Rochester, New York, near the shores of Lake Ontario.

The murder investigation, which was handled by the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, produced no physical or corroborating evidence that supported Frank’s staged videotaped confession.

The Rochester Democrat-Chronicle newspaper has the complete story including videos and post trial legal motion to vacate Sterling’s conviction.

The Innocence Project represented Sterling and introduced DNA evidence that linked another man, Mark Christie to the murder. Because Sterling was convicted of the crime, Christie was free to commit another homicide of a 4 year old girl three years later.

Innocence Project officials contend that investigators became too fixated on Sterling and ignored other possibilities.

This appears to be the identical situation that happened to Erick Westervelt. The Bethlehem NY, Police Department looked no further than him and his false confession. They also had no physical or corroborating evidence linking him to the murder of Tim Gray.

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Repeat Performance. 

Christopher Porco and defense attorney Terrence Kindlon

For our readers unfamiliar with the Christopher Porco case, you can get the details here.

NCJ refers to this case occasionally because of the strange similarities with Erick Westervelt’s case. The latest similarity is Porco’s appeal being denied for the same reasons as Westervelt's.

The other similarities can be seen in the January 30, 2009 NCJ blog entry.

Now, Porco’s attorney, Terrence "Terry" Kindlon, is going right to the top; the New York State Court of Appeals.

Interesting what money can do; Westervelt has none.

This is where the similarity ends.

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Social Stigma. 
Wikipedia describes it as severe social disapproval of personal characteristics or beliefs that are perceived to be against cultural norms. It cites many examples such as mental illness, physical disabilities and diseases such as leprosy. Among others, there is also illegitimacy, skin tone or affiliation with a specific nationality, religion or lack thereof.

It goes on to include the perception or attribution, rightly or wrongly, of criminality which carries a strong social stigma.

Even though leprosy is curable, criminality is not. Leprosy leaves it’s victims with physical scars, whereas criminality leaves mental scars.

The social stigma that takes place in the event that an individual is publicly charged with a crime is permanent. Once labeled, the stigma will never be erased in the minds of many, even if the individual is innocent or the charges are dismissed.

The media accounts are extremely powerful accusations which are sometimes incorrect. Such was the case with many of the accounts of the arrest and accusations concerning Erick Westervelt.

The local media repeated the unsubstantiated information released by the Bethlehem, NY, Police Department about a homicide being committed with a hatchet. Even though that was their speculation at the time and never proven, the stigma will always remain.

At some point in time, Erick Westervelt will most likely be exonerated for a crime that he did not commit. Once the actual truth of his circumstances becomes known and meaningful steps are undertaken to acknowledge his innocence, he will be set free to pick up the pieces of his shattered life.

Unfortunately, the unfairly induced social stigma towards him and his innocent family will always remain; along with the mental scars.

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