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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Getting Serious? 
Is New York State going to move forward and actually implement effective procedures in order to minimize wrongful convictions?

Is there going to be post trial review boards?

To help answer these questions, NCJ will focus on a very serious event hosted by the Albany Law Review that took place today at Albany Law School, Albany, NY. It was the 4th Annual, Chief Judge Lawrence H. Cooke State Constitutional Commentary Symposium.

This year’s symposium, entitled Wrongful Convictions: Understanding and Addressing Criminal Injustice", was conducted by NYS Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman.

The guest speakers were:

James R. Acker, Ph.D., Distinguished Teaching Professor, School of Criminal Justice, University at Albany, State University of New York.

Hon. Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., District Attorney, New York County.

Amy Bach, Esq., Author, Ordinary Injustice: How America Holds Court.

Saul M. Kassin, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Psychology, John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Massachusetts Professor of Psychology, Williams College.

Stephen Saloom, Esq., Policy Director, Innocence Project.

It is evident by the commentaries of the speakers that New York State MUST take action and be a national leader in criminal justice reforms regarding wrongful convictions.

During the period following the panel's presentation, there were several very meaningful comments made by other influential members of the New York criminal justice system. Addressing the panelists from the audience were:

Hon. Kathleen "Kate" Hogan, District Attorney, Warren County, NY and President of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York.

Hon. Phyllis Bamberger, retired New York State Court of Claims Judge and member of the New York State Bar Association's Task Force on Wrongful Convictions.

Laurie Shanks, Esq., Clinical Professor of Law, Albany Law School and criminal defense attorney.

Another distinguished attendee that was present but did not speak was New York State Appellate Court Presiding Justice Anthony V. Cardona.

Only time will tell if these influential leaders and others, can accomplish the goals of implementing the procedures for handling all criminal cases legally, equally and fairly.

If this gathering of prominent individuals is an indication of positive criminal justice reform, it would be fair to say that New York is getting extremely serious.

You can watch the webcast of the symposium here.

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Sending a message. 
The following is an excerpt from the Bluhm Blog. It is written by Clinical Professor Steven Drizin, Director of the Center On Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago. IL.

This groundbreaking lawsuit, however, could force police officers in Albuquerque and elsewhere to change their investigation protocols when it comes to confession evidence. All too often, police view the confession as the be-all and end-all of any investigation. While confession evidence is perhaps the most powerful piece of evidence in a court of law, it is not worthy of this status. Confessions are not per se reliable. They are only as reliable as the evidence which corroborates the confession and any good police department will continue to seek corroboration even after securing a confession. Moreover, confession evidence can be contaminated. To the extent that confession details appear to match the crime evidence, case after case of wrongful convictions have shown that these details are often fed to suspects by police officers through leading questions, showing suspects crime scene photos, and other tricks of the interrogation trade.

Read the entire article here.

Professor Drizin’s article clearly highlights the “shortcut” path that some police agencies take when investigating serious crimes. If this lawsuit is successful, it should serve as warning to all police investigators that there is a consequence for “dereliction of duty” when not corroborating confession evidence. The subject of “corroboration of evidence” has been addressed by NCJ in several previous blog entries; the most recent was on November 6, 2009.

A similar situation to what happened in Albuquerque, NM could possibly occur elsewhere as a result of the wrongful conviction of Erick Westervelt. NCJ has also addressed this subject in previous entries as well and until Westervelt’s case is resolved, the possibility will remain. Of course there is also the possibility that it has already happened.

According to Westervelt, the Bethlehem police detectives failed to corroborate any of the "false" information that he provided during the "confession session". He claims that he was elaborating on the information that they had provided him about an incident that he knew nothing about. To his dismay, he was led to believe that the nature of the incident was merely a fist fight with a guy that he hadn't seen in months. He figured if he told them what they wanted to hear, he could go home.

Police video transcripts indicate that It wasn’t until hours after his "confession" was obtained, that the detectives told him the actual truth about the life threatening condition of the assaulted victim.

Westervelt also maintains that is when he went into a state of shock that rendered him mentally helpless to cope with the situation from that point on. That claim is supported by his depressed physical reactions and muted verbal responses throughout the remainder of the video. Friends and family observers of the televised arraignment noted his "Zombie" like appearance and his limited functionality.

He was under arrest for assault at that time and the criminal charges were upgraded to murder when the victim died the next day.

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The 250th DNA Exoneration Included a False Confession. 
NEW YORK, NY, February 4, 2010 - A Rochester, New York, man who was wrongfully convicted of rape 33 years ago is being exonerated with DNA testing today, in what the Innocence Project said is the 250th DNA exoneration in the United States.

Freddie Peacock, 60, was convicted of rape in December 1976. He was sentenced to up to 20 years in prison and released on parole in 1982. He tried to remain on parole because he thought he would never be able to clear his name if he was released from state supervision. For the last 28 years since he left prison, he has fought to prove his innocence even though he was no longer incarcerated.

Freddie Peacock lived in the same apartment building as the victim, and she made a shaky identification of him as the perpetrator. Barely two hours after the attack, Peacock was arrested and interrogated for about two and a half hours. He initially denied any involvement in the crime, but police claim he ultimately confessed. Peacock told the detective handling the interrogation that he had severe mental illness and had been hospitalized for it several times. In his alleged confession, Peacock could not tell officers where, when or how the victim was raped. He was tried and convicted.

"Freddie Peacock was released many years ago, but he hasn't been truly free because the cloud of this conviction hung over him," said Olga Akselrod, the Innocence Project Staff Attorney handling the case. The Innocence Project is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. "Nobody in the U.S. who was exonerated with DNA testing has spent this many years outside of prison fighting to prove his innocence. Today, the decades-long nightmare that Freddie Peacock and his family have endured is finally over."

The Innocence Project released a report today, "250 Exonerated: Too Many Wrongfully Convicted," which details each one of the exoneration cases and includes statistics on common causes of the wrongful convictions.

The top three states for DNA exonerations are Texas (with 40), Illinois (with 29) and New York (with 25).

Read the entire news report here.

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