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Articles about Wrongful Convictions

Cases of Interest From the U.S. Supreme Court's 1997-98 Term

Forfeitures: In a federal criminal case the supreme court held that the Excessive Fines clause of the Eighth amendment prohibits "grossly disproportionate" forfeitures of funds. The court held that forfeitures are "fines'' if they are punishment for a crime. The underlying case involved a defendant convicted of taking $357,144 out of the country without reporting it to customs. The district court held that only $15,000 could be forfeited while the government sought to seize the entire amount. The ninth circuit affirmed as did the supreme court. This is the first time the supreme court has applied the excessive fines clause to a forfeiture case. See: United States v. Bajakajian , 118 S.Ct. 2028 (1998).

Parole: The supreme court reversed the Pennsylvania supreme court and held that illegally obtained evidence can be used in parole revocation hearings and the exclusionary rule does not apply. A Pennsylvania parolee's home was illegally searched and weapons were found. The weapons were introduced at a parole revocation hearing. The Pennsylvania supreme court held that illegally seized evidence couldn't be used at parole revocation hearings. See: 698 A.2d 32, 548 PA. 418 (1997). The U.S. supreme court reversed, holding that the exclusionary rule does not apply ...

Zain Fallout Continues

Fred Zain was a crime lab serologist, who tested evidence for the West Virginia state police from 1979 to 1989, and was chief of serology his last five years. During that time Zain falsified evidence and testified about the results of tests he never performed.

In 1989, Zain took a letter of recommendation from the West Virginia governor and headed to Texas, where he was named head of serology at the Baxter County medical examiner's office in San Antonio. Zain worked there until 1992 when his West Virginia shenanigans came to light. [See: "Fraudulent Police Chemist Flees Justice", PLN Vol. 5, No. 10]

An investigation was triggered by the case of West Virginian Glen Dale Woodall, whose 1987 rape convictions were overturned after DNA tests showed he could not have committed the crime for which he had already served five years. In 1993, the WV supreme court invalidated as many as 138 felony convictions because of evidence tainted or fabricated by Zain. Woodall was awarded $1 million for his false incarceration. William O'Dell Harris, also convicted by flawed testimony from Zain, was later awarded $1.8 million.

In October, 1997, West Virginian Gerald Wayne Davis settled for a reported $650,000 in ...

No Immunity for Florida Private Jail

The district court for the middle district of Florida held that the sheriff, the county and a private corporation operating the county jail were liable for detaining an arrestee for 30 days without a probable cause hearing. The court also held that monetary damages were the proper remedy and that the private operator was not entitled to qualified immunity.

On September 18, 1992, Thomas Blumel was arrested by a Florida sheriff's deputy for allegedly violating a restraining order obtained by his estranged wife as an adjunct to a divorce action. Blumel was booked into the county jail, which was operated by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) under contract with the county.

The day after his arrest Blumel was brought before a county judge for a "first appearance," which is normally intended as a probable cause hearing. However, the judge in this instance was not the same judge who issued the restraining order, so he could not rule on the contempt. Blumel was neither released nor offered bail because his arrest was a warrantless arrest.

A month after Blumel was arrested the judge who issued the restraining order finally held a hearing on the matter. As a result the contempt ...

Prisoners Held Beyond Release Date Sue

Four civil rights attorneys filed suit against Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block and other officials for falsely imprisoning thousands of people each year by holding them beyond their scheduled release dates. "We intend to seek an injunction under the taxpayer action and force Sheriff Block to stop this wasteful and illegal practice," lead attorney John C. Burton said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times April 25, 1997. Sheriff's officials declined to comment on the allegations, citing the pending litigation.

The Sheriff's Department has quietly admitted it's tracking system for prisoners is obsolete and faulty. By April, some 200 people had been held beyond their release dates in Los Angeles County so far. The Department has been paying departing prisoners held too long in exchange for their agreement not to sue. To date this year, more than $26,000 has been paid to 30 people held an average of 17 days beyond their court ordered release dates according to figures obtained by the newspaper under the California Public Records Act.

The attorneys applied to have the lawsuit certified as a class action and, through court discovery, were working to identify other potential plaintiffs. This is the second such lawsuit ...

Res Judicata No Bar to Damages in Illegal Sentence

In the May and July, 1995, issues of PLN we reported Rooding v. Peters, 876 F. Supp. 946 (ND IL 1994) in which a district court held that res judicata prevented a prisoner from filing suit in federal court for money damages after he had won a writ of mandamus ordering his release from an unlawful sentence in state court.

Ronald Rooding was convicted of criminal damage to property and sentenced to one year in prison. With good time this translated to 92 days of actual imprisonment. When Rooding arrived at an IL DOC facility to serve the sentence he had already served 71 days in jail and thus had 21 days left to serve in the IL DOC. However, an IL DOC policy required that all new DOC commitments serve at least sixty days. This policy, in effect, lengthened Rooding's sentence by 39 days. Rooding filed for a writ of habeas corpus asking for his release after 72 days of captivity. The writ was granted 27 days after he should have been released.

Rooding then filed a class action suit in federal court claiming the 60 day policy violated his right to due process and equal protection. The district ...

County Liable for Trustee's Work; No Remedy for Illegal Detention

The court of appeals for the fifth circuit held that a county was properly liable where it did not reimburse a jail detainee for work he performed on public property. The court also held that a pretrial detainee's work as a trusty does not violate the thirteenth amendment when such ...

Private Prison Liable for Wrongful Imprisonment

A federal district court in Florida held that a private corporation which ran a county jail under contract was liable for a detainee's wrongful imprisonment. Thomas Blumel was arrested without a warrant after being accused of violating a restraining order. Blumel was then placed in the Hernando County Jail which was operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) under contract. After spending the night in jail Blumel appeared before a judge who did not appoint counsel or determine bail, instead the judge said he was in the "wrong court." Blumel spent another 30 days in jail before eventually appearing before a judge who dismissed the charge for lack of evidence and ordered Blumel released. Blumel then sued the county and CCA claiming his right to due process was violated when the county and CCA violated their constitutional duty to ensure that warrantless pre-trial detainees are detained only after a judicial determination of probable cause within the first 48 hours of arrest. He also claimed CCA was liable for negligence and false imprisonment.

CCA filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim and the court denied the motion. The court held that jail and prison officials can be ...

Extending Release Date Violates Eighth Amendment

A federal district court in Illinois held that the eighth amendment is violated when a prisoner is held almost two years past his release date. Don Campbell, an Illinois state prisoner, was released from prison in 1986 to serve a two-year term of Mandatory Supervised Release (MSR). A few months later he was arrested and convicted for possessing a firearm. He was sentenced to two years in prison and was also declared an MSR violator. The state trial court ordered that he serve the remaining MSR term concurrently with the sentence for the new conviction. Once in prison Campbell allegedly violated disciplinary rules and in a three day period lost three years, three days of good conduct time. Suspecting the infractions would be used to illegally lengthen his sentence, Campbell wrote prison officials who told him his release date was in 1987. Later, they told him his release date was in 1990.

Finding no satisfaction with the responses of prison officials, Campbell filed a writ of habeas corpus in state court. In an unpublished ruling the Illinois appeals court found that Campbell had been held past his minimum sentence. The court found that Campbell should have been released in 1988 ...

True Lies in Philly

Five current or former police officers from the 39th District of North Philadelphia were indicted by a federal grand jury this past February, accused of framing dozens of Philadelphians. The indictment accuses the officers of warrant less searches both inside and outside their district, during which they stole money, drugs and guns, beating handcuffed suspects, falsifying reports and records to hide evidence of their illegal searches and seizures, and maintaining a secret stash of drugs and narcotics paraphernalia which they used to "flake" (falsely accuse) individuals of drug dealing or possession. The attorney for one of the officers, Steven Brown, says his client would quickly sign a plea agreement with federal prosecutors. He says that Brown had acknowledged the wrongdoing and was willing to admit to all of the charges.

One case is illustrative of how Brown and his fellow officers operated. In 1988 Brown went to a judge to obtain a warrant to search Joe's Steak and Hoagie for suspected drugs. In order to establish probable cause he told the judge that while working undercover he observed a teenager sell drugs at a school, and then go to the steak house and hand the money over to the proprietor. ...

IL DOC Confinement Policy Illegal

The director of the Illinois DOC (IDOC) has promulgated a regulation under which all prisoners that it receives must be held for at least 60 days before they are released. Ronald Rooding was convicted and sentenced to one year in jail. After deducting good time and earned time he should have served a total of 92 days in confinement. When he was transferred from the Cook County jail to an IDOC facility he had 21 days remaining to serve. Instead, the IDOC calculated his release at 60 days after he arrived in their custody. A week after he should have been released he filed a writ of habeas corpus in Cook County Circuit Court. The court granted the Writ and issued an order directing Roodings immediate release from custody. The court denied the states motion for reconsideration and refused to stay its ruling pending an appeal. Despite the fact that the court had granted the writ on December 22, 1993,  Rooding was not released until January 6, 1994, the day after a state appeals court denied an emergency motion to stay the lower court ruling.

Rooding then filed suit in federal court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claiming that his ...