Righting Wrongful Convictions

April 24, 2007

"DNA – that's God's signature," said Eddie Joe Lloyd, a post-conviction DNA exoneree featured in Jessica Sanders' documentary film, After Innocence.

On April 24, Brandeis's Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism presented the award-winning film, followed by a panel discussion featuring Dennis Maher – exonerated by DNA evidence after serving 19-and-a-half years in prison – and Bernard "Bee" Baran – granted a new trial by a judge who threw out his conviction and excoriated his prosecution. Baran was then released from prison after 21 years. He is awaiting the prosecutor's decision on whether he will be retried.

The film and panel addressed the weaknesses and complexities in the American judicial system and the reality that innocent people convicted wrongfully can serve decades in prison because of mistaken identifications and other factors such as prosecutorial misconduct.

Maher's conviction was based on the positive identification of three rape victims. Eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, playing a role in 75% of convictions overturned through DNA testing.

Baran, openly gay and working in a daycare center in 1984, was sentenced on several counts of child molestation, only to be released last June – 21 years later – after his appeals lawyers presented evidence that he didn't receive a fair trial, including newly discovered tapes that showed daycare center children apparently being coaxed to testify against him.

When asked whether their wrongful convictions plague them despite their prison releases, Maher said, "I didn't care what people thought of me before, and I'm not going to change that now."

Both men expressed their dedication to forgiveness and their desire to move on.

In that spirit, the film and panel presented the extraordinary reconciliation that occurred between Maher and his prosecutor, J.W. Carney, who also served on the panel. Carney said he was "haunted" by Maher's conviction, which felt "just too easy." When given the chance to assist in Maher's efforts for DNA testing, Carney did all he could. His efforts helped lead to Maher's exoneration and release from prison. Outside the courtroom, immediately following Maher's exoneration and release, Carney apologized, and Maher forgave him on the spot.

Carney said that earlier in his career he switched from being a defense attorney to a prosecutor because he believed in "the ethics of a good prosecution." But after serving as a prosecutor he switched back and has spent the last two decades as a renowned defense attorney. It was Maher's forgiveness that allowed him to move forward, Carney said.

Maher explained that holding onto his anger at losing nearly 20 years of his life would prevent him from being productive with the second chance he's been granted.

Maher's attorney, Robert Feldman, and Baran's attorney, John Swomley, listed common causes of wrongful convictions including ineffective counsel, mistaken eyewitness identification, the unreliability of hair comparisons and fingerprint analyses, and police and prosecution misconduct.

The Innocence Project, founded by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, is the first of the nation's 35 law-based Innocence Projects that focus mainly on cases where DNA evidence is available. Feldman noted that only 10% to 20% of potential wrongful conviction cases have any DNA evidence available. The majority of the cases require the kind of investigative reporting offered by the Schuster Institute's Justice Brandeis Innocence Project, one of only three journalism-based Innocence Projects nationwide.

Members of the New England Innocence Project, which Feldman helped create, sift through letters received from prisoners to determine whether DNA evidence exists. If it does, the NEIP further explores whether it can take the case. The NEIP refers cases with no testable DNA to the Justice Brandeis Innocence Project.

April 23 marked the 200th exoneration since DNA was first presented in an American criminal court case in 1987.

Sponsored by The Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. Co-sponsored by the Office of the Dean of Arts and Sciences, Office of the Provost, Women's Studies Research Center, International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life, Journalism Program, Black Student Organization, Hillel, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, Student Union, University Chaplains, and WBRS News