Monday, July 12, 2010

Incarcerated but Free

Last Friday, Victor Rosario became one of the first Massachusetts inmates to be ordained as a minister while incarcerated.

Rosario is serving a life sentence for arson in connection to a 1982 Lowell fire that killed 8 people. Rosario was present at the scene of the fire and heard cries for help coming from the burning building. He was 24 years old at the time and had abused alcohol for most of his life. Just hours after the horrible fire, Rosario sought the help of a local minister. “When he was praying for me, I went down to the ground, and I felt this kind of peace in myself,’’ Rosario said in an April prison interview. “Like a Christian person, … you’re reborn, I felt that peace in me and I went back with the Bible thinking Sunday I would be in church.’’

Rosario, however, was in jail by Sunday and has remained behind bars ever since. During his incarceration, Rosario has run marathons, mentored fellow prisoners, and married. While still physically incarcerated, Rosario says he is mentally free from drugs and alcohol. Rosario writes, “I believe that God has called me to prison ministry. I also believe that one day I will be a free man and able to minister both inside and outside these walls that currently confine me.’’

Two weeks ago, a Boston Globe article highlighted numerous shortcomings in the investigation that raise serious questions about the validity of Rosario's conviction. Rosario's legal team is expected to file a motion for a new trial later this summer.

Nicas, Jack. "Behind bars, convict's spirit is free."

Thursday, July 1, 2010

New Jersey at the Forefront of Eyewitness Misidentification Reform

Over 10 years ago, the New Jersey Supreme Court handed down a landmark ruling requiring judges to instruct juries about the reliability problems with cross-racial identifications when the identification is not corroborated by other evidence. This ruling came after McKinley Cromedy was exonerated through DNA testing. Cromedy spent five years in prison for a rape he did not commit. The only hard evidence presented at his trial was the victim’s testimony identifying him as her attacker.

Last month the Special Master appointed by the New Jersey Supreme Court in State v. Henderson released a report calling for a major overhaul of the legal standards used by courts to determine the admissibility of eyewitness identification evidence. Geoffrey Gaulkin, a retired appellate judge, submitted the report after extensive hearings on the state of the law and science of eyewitness identification. The report recognized the major scientific developments in the area of eyewitness identification and concluded that the widely-used Manson test and procedures are not “valid and appropriate in light of recent scientific and other evidence.” The Special Master made numerous findings to support his conclusion, including the following: suggestive procedures can falsely inflate the reliability of eyewitness testimony; eyewitness memory is more like physical trace evidence than a videotape recording and can be mishandled, contaminated, or degraded; non law enforcement actors can contaminate a witness’s memory. The report recommended that the reliability inquiry be expanded to include “all the variables left unaddressed” by Manson, that at least an initial burden be placed on the prosecution to produce evidence of the reliability of the eyewitness identification evidence, and that judges and juries be informed of and guided by the scientific findings regarding eyewitness identification.

"A new framework is urgently needed to address what the science has told us," said Ezekiel R. Edwards, a lawyer with the Innocence Project in New York who participated in the New Jersey investigation on the issue.

Many factors have been found to affect the reliability of an identification. The way lineups and photo arrays are administered drastically affects the dependability of an identification. New Jersey has guidelines for police officers administering lineups. These guidelines include telling the witness that the perpetrator may not be present and showing photos sequentially rather than simultaneously. Such procedures have been found to reduce the risk of misidentification.

According to the Innocence Project, eyewitness misidentification was a contributing factor in over 75 percent of US convictions later overturned by DNA evidence.

Lounsberry, Emilie. "New Jersey is a leader in addressing problems with eyewitness testimony." The Pennsyvania Inquirer. June 28, 2010.

See Also: Special Master Report. State v. Henderson.