Monday, November 29, 2010

NEIP Board Member Featured in BU Law Webcast

Stanley Fisher, a NEIP board member and law professor at Boston University Law School, was featured with two of his former students in a short video. Check it out to hear him talk about the Innocence Project!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

James Hebshie Released on Bail in Time for Thanksgiving

After spending more than four years in prison, James Hebshie left the federal courthouse with his family today after US District Court Judge Nancy Gertner granted his Emergency Motion for Bail and released him on personal recognizance. After a 5 day hearing last July, Mr. Hebshie's conviction was vacated by Judge Gertner last week. Gertner wrote, "this Court recognizes the importance of finality in criminal cases, particularly after time and resources have gone into the trial, and after a jury has pronounced guilt. But finality cannot trump fairness or justice."

The government did not oppose Hebshie's motion. Mr. Hebshie, in a brief but moving speech, thanked the Court and those who worked to help him gain his freedom. "I never thought I'd live to see this day," Mr. Hebshie said.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

NEIP Thanks Jeanne Kempthorne & John Lentini

James Hebshie's case would most likely have been another wrongful conviction that never came to light without the help of Jeanne Kempthorne and John Lentini. Ms. Kempthorne took on Mr. Hebshie's case for appeal and, believing in his innocence, refused to give up after losing in the first circuit. She enlisted the help of NEIP for the habeas petition. Kempthorne was a U.S. attorney for ten years before opening her own firm. She focuses on appellate and post-conviction practice in state and federal court.

John Lentini, one of the nation's most prominent fire scientists, testified on Hebshie's behalf at the evidentiary hearing granted by Judge Gertner in this case. Lentini has testified in over 200 cases (both civil and criminal) and has conducted over 2,000 fire scene investigations. Lentini pointed out the shortcomings in the government's case, including the "scientific" testimony relating to the fire. Judge Gertner relied heavily on Lentini's testimony when issuing her order earlier this week.

James Hebshie's Conviction Vacated

On November 15th, Judge Nancy Gertner issued a 69-page ruling granting James Hebshie's habeas petition. Mr. Hebshie was convicted of starting a fire that destroyed an office building in Taunton, MA. The fire occurred in 2001, Mr. Hebshie was convicted in 2006. Mr. Hebshie ran a convenience store within the office building. The government's theory was that Hebshie burned his store to get $5,000 worth of insurance money. The government put on the following witnesses to tell their story:

1. David Domingos: (Cause-and-Origin Investigator) Domingos testified that the left-side wall in Hebshie's store was the most damaged (even though other parts of the store had collapsed). Domingos centered in on the store very early on in the investigation. Judge Gertner points out, "Domingos discounted the theory that the fire was an electrical fire starting in the basement, even though, as noted, his written report did not mention the basement at all."

2. Sergeant Lynch: (Canine Handler) Lynch testified at length about the "accelerant-detection" dog, Billy. Lynch discusses Billy's personality, his emotional attachment to the dog, and "the way her eyes shifted," "the way her ears shifted when she located stuff." Lynch vouched for the dog as 97% accurate, an assertion that was not corroborated by any evidence. Lynch only brought Billy into Hebshie's store, where she alerted the presence of a substance later classified as light petroleum distillate (LPD). When Billy alerted, Lynch took only one carpet sample; no control samples were taken. LPD is a substance that could have come from any number of sources, including the chemical makeup of the carpet itself. When asked why no control samples were taken, Lynch and Domingos both pointed the finger at each other.

3. Lieutenant Myers: Myers was the first firefighter on the scene. He testified to the thermal imaging. After the initial fire had been extinguished, the imaging camera showed "hot spots" along all four walls. Myers believed that this merely meant that the walls were hot from the fire that had been extinguished. In fact, the fire was inside the walls and continuing to spread.

Hebshie's counsel, John and Jay Spinale, did not challenge any of the aforementioned "scientific" evidence, despite the Court repeatedly asking them if they'd like to have a Daubert hearing. The Spinales also failed to object to the lengthy, and as Gertner puts it "mystical account," of the dog-sniff evidence.

These, coupled with numerous other deficiencies, caused Judge Gertner to order a new trial for James Hebshie. The conclusion of her opinion sums it up best:

As Larry A. Hammond, past president of the American Judicature Society, noted: "By routinely allowing into evidence expert testimony that we know should have been excluded, and by closing courthouse doors to claims for redress after conviction, the courts have contributed to the problems we face today." Larry A. Hammond, The Failure of Forensic Science Reform in Arizona, 93 Judicature 227, 2 (2010).

In fact, he suggested, one thing that each of the cases in which there have been wrongful convictions necessarily have in common is that each were presided over by a judge, an appellate court, and typically had post conviction habeas review. And then he concluded:

"One would hope that with the announcement of every exoneration, the judges across whose desks these cases passed would pause to ask, ‘what can we do to make sure that this doesn’t happen again?"

This Court recognizes the importance of finality in criminal cases, particularly after time and resources have gone into the trial, and after a jury has pronounced guilt. But finality cannot trump fairness or justice. If Hebshie’s defense of serious charges was fatally undermined by ineffective counsel, I am duty bound to say so. Therefore, Hebshie’s habeas petition is GRANTED.

For the first news article breaking the story, click here.
See below for Judge Gertner's full order.

US v. Hebshie

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Exoneree Dies Months after Being Released From Prison

Bobby Ray Dixon spent more than 30 years in prison for a rape and murder he did not commit. Dixon was convicted in 1979 along with two other men who were eventually exonerated. The Innocence Project New Orleans worked on Dixon's case. His guilty plea was finally set aside on September 16th, 2010.

Sadly, Dixon passed away this week after battling lung and brain cancer. He was 53. Dixon's younger brother, Jerry, said that he was happy his older brother lived to see his name cleared. Emily Maw, director of the Innocence Project New Orleans said, "I think there are times when the wheels of justice grind slowly in a lot of cases. The fact that they did so slowly in this case is particularly sad."

Dixon was exonerated after DNA was tested in the case. The DNA matched Andrew Harris, a man already in prison for rape. IPNO is also working to exonerate another man convicted in the case, Larry Ruffin, who died while in prison.

Byrd, Sheila. "Man dies weeks after being cleared in 1979 killing." November 9, 2010.