Hall of Shame of Wrongful Convictions
The University of Michigan Law School and Northwestern University Law School have joined in an effort to create a national database of exonerated criminal defendants. It’s a kind of Hall of Shame of Wrongful Convictions. Beginning in 1989, the Registry documents over 900 exonerations, and is still assembling data.
Before Alaskans get too smug about Alaska’s criminal justice system, consider State v. Layo Sinegal:
One night in September 1994, police found a white woman drunk and in disarray in a city park in Petersburg, Alaska. She immediately told the police that Layo Sinegal had forced her onto the ground and raped her. Sinegal was a black seasonal worker who had gone out for a drink with her and some co-workers earlier that evening. Soon after, the police found Sinegal in the park with his belt undone. Sinegal’s attorney hired a private investigator a month before trial. The investigator was delayed in arriving in Petersburg, however, because his wife had a stroke, and did not show up until the night before jury selection began. Sinegal’s attorney chose to proceed with the trial, and did not request a continuance to allow the investigator time to examine the physical evidence, even though the attorney himself had not examined the evidence either. The victim identified Sinegal at trial, and two eyewitnesses testified that they had seen Sinegal on top of the victim with his hand covering her mouth. In April 1995, a jury convicted Sinegal of sexual assault and he was sentenced to 5 years in prison.
Sinegal’s post-conviction attorney discovered new evidence of his innocence that Sinegal’s trial attorney either had not discovered or had failed to use. Sinegal’s belt was a one prong style that could have come undone by itself. The victim’s clothing was also clean, which contradicted her story of being forced onto the muddy ground, and there was evidence that another man was in the park with the victim that night. In October 1997, a Superior Court judge overturned Sinegal’s conviction based on his trial attorney’s failure to conduct an adequate pre-trial investigation. Sinegal was released pending the state’s appeal of the judge’s decision. In October 1999, the Alaska Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s decision. The state dismissed the charges in May 2000.
So much for Alaska always getting it right.
One of the arguments against the death penalty is the patent fallibility of the criminal justice system. In states likes Texas, Florida and Louisiana, the rate of wrongful convictions is frighteningly high. Illinois famously abandoned the death penalty because of its rate of wrongful convictions, and in particular prosecutor misconduct.
WC has railed against the death penalty. If you support it, WC invites you to read some of the case summaries in the Registry and decide if you want to reconsider.
Props to the two law schools for pulling this together. Well done.