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Innocence Project lawyer sees criminal justice improvements

Senior Editor Regular News
Criminal Justice Summit

NINA MORRISON, center, of the Innocence Project poses with Bar President Michelle Suskauer and former Bar President Hank Coxe at the Bar’s Criminal Justice Summit. Morrison told the summit that while it’s common to say “nothing good happens in criminal cases,” that’s belied in proceedings where the conviction of an innocent person is overturned.

Innocence Project lawyer sees criminal justice improvements

Senior Editor

Withheld evidence, jailhouse informants, bogus “scientific” tests, and coerced confessions have all played parts in wrongful convictions, including murder cases, but the aftermath has also led to legal reforms to reduce such errors.

Nina Morrison, senior staff attorney with the Innocence Project in New York City, recounted some specific cases taken on by the organization as well as some general numbers when she talked about the project’s efforts at the Bar’s recent Criminal Justice Summit in Tampa. She has been counsel or co-counsel on 27 cases in Florida and other states that resulted in exonerations of wrongly convicted people.

Morrison was speaking two weeks after her work on a Texas case contributed to the exoneration of John Nolley. Nolley had actually been out of prison on bail for two years while his case was being reinvestigated after serving 19 years for murder.

That reinvestigation showed how innocence cases have changed, Morrison said, as it was conducted with the local district attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit that retested blood evidence in the case and conducted hundreds of interviews, some of which undercut the two jailhouse informants whose testimony helped convict Nolley.

Perhaps more important, the case helped lead to the Texas Legislature passing a law governing the use of jailhouse informants and disclosures that must be made to the defense when such informants are used.

“On the date he was exonerated, it wasn’t just a formality. There was a full courtroom. The judge apologized to him for what he had been through,” Morrison said. “The district attorney got up and talked about her obligation as the chief lawyer representing the county and the state to make things right. That doesn’t happen every day in criminal courts.”

Another of Morrison’s Texas cases involved Michael Morton, who served 25 years after being wrongly convicted of killing his wife, Christine. That case involved bad science and ignored evidence.

The bad science was the time of death for Christine, which was originally set between 1 and 6 a.m.; Morton had arrived for his job as a supermarket manager at 5 a.m. A medical examiner used a later discredited test on the digestion of Christine’s stomach contents to place the time of death at shortly after 1 a.m., when only Morton and his ailing son were home with her.

“Later, jurors would say that testimony was what sealed it,” Morrison said.

Morton’s mother-in-law, a few days after the murder, told police that the Mortons’ young son, who was recovering from surgery, described a “monster” with a moustache (Morton was clean shaven) killing his mother after Morton left for work, Morrison said. Oher details in the statement matched the crime scene. Police never conducted their own interview or provided that statement to the defense.

And Morton’s brother-in-law, doing his own search, found a bandana 100 yards from the house with Chritine. Morton’s blood on it, plus sweat and skin from the killer. Police didn’t test it and it took the Innocence Project, after it learned about the bandana, five years to get permission for a DNA test. It took four weeks after the test to match the DNA to a serial killer, who had a mustache and had committed a similar murder two years after the Morton case.

The DA in the Morton case spent a few days in jail for falsely telling a judge all evidence has been provided to the defense, and he was disbarred. The Texas Legislature passed the Michael Morton Act, discovery reform legislation that resets the four-year statute of limitations clock on prosecutorial misconduct to begin running only after the misconduct victim is released from prison.

Other changes in that state include that “Texas now has the nation’s leading forensic commission that reviews complaints about forensic tests and misconduct,” Morrison said. That commission has said that controversial bite mark forensic testing is “total junk,” which has led to a moratorium on such testimony in the state.

That state now has a process for reviewing past convictions including a process for retesting old evidence, a statewide system for eyewitness ID procedures, which have historically been the largest cause of wrongful convictions, and the mandatory electronic recording of all interrogations.

Morrison noted a similar recording law has been proposed, but rejected in Florida (actual confessions are recorded, but not the interrogations preceding them). The state has changed its photo ID procedure so the person conducting the review must not know the correct answer and must instruct the witness the perpetrator may not be in the photo array.

In Florida, there have been 64 exonerations since 1972, seventh highest in the nation, she said, noting though that the Innocence Project does not have a presence in all states. Twelve exonerations were based in whole or part on DNA evidence.

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