Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Bermudez Exoneration Brings Hope for the Factually Innocent

Justice John Cataldo of the New York State Supreme Court recognized a judicial basis for claims of actual innocence this month when he overturned Fernando Bermudez' conviction. The decision, rendered on November 12, moves the state of New York closer to recognizing actual innocence as grounds for appeal. Justice Cataldo wrote, “I find the due process clause of our state Constitution requires a procedural mechanism be provided for an incarcerated defendant to bring a post-conviction motion upon a claim of actual innocence.”

Bermudez was convicted in 1992 of fatally shooting a sixteen-year-old in Greenwich Village. Five witnesses spoke against him at trial. No physical evidence tied him to the crime. In 1993, all five witnesses recanted their testimony, claiming that they were manipulated by prosecutors and police. They have stuck to their recantation ever since, and Bermudez has been petitioning to have the state court re-evaluate the evidence in his case since that time, but to no avail. The justice system seems to view recantations as inherently untrustworthy. A 1995 judge called the five who recanted in Bermudez' case simply too many to believe. Bermudez has stuck to his original story all along-- he did not know the victim, he had no motive to kill him, and he was elsewhere with friends at the time of the murder. Two friends spoke to his alibi, and have consistently maintained their testimony.

Legislation has also recently been brought in the state of New York that would amend the criminal procedure law to include a definition of actual innocence and the grounds by which a judge could vacate a sentence due to actual innocence.

The New York Times, November 22, 2009: Hope for the Wrongfully Convicted
The New York Times, April 13, 2007: Accusers Recant, but Hopes Still Fade in Sing Sing
New York State Senate: Actual Innocence Justice Act of 2009
State of NY v. Fernando Bermudez: Decision and Order, November 12, 2009

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Dog "Scent Line Ups" Unreliable and Misused

The New York Times today reported on the phenomenon of dog "scent line ups", in which a dog is exposed to a scent from a crime scene and then walked past vials containing swabbed samples from suspects and non-suspects. The dog indicates to the handler that it has reached a match, by stiffening its back or barking. Using dogs to follow scents has long been a practice of law enforcement officials, and is still employed by the FBI. But even the FBI agrees that dog scent line ups should not be used as the primary piece of evidence against a suspect. Dogs are liable to suggestion by their handlers, smells are often easily mixed and difficult to distinguish, and handlers may misinterpret their dog's signals. Many states do not accept scent line ups as evidence, but several do, including Texas, Florida, New York and Alaska.

New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/04/us/04scent.html?_r=1&ref=us