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Aid rises for those wrongly convicted

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Lana Canen and Kristine Bunch insisted they were innocent for years after each was convicted of murder by Indiana juries. Both women were freed in 2012, but their paths to exoneration were starkly different.

“When a prosecutor knows that a person is not responsible, that prosecutor has a duty to take action because of the interest of justice,” said Elkhart County Prosecutor Curtis Hill. As prosecutor since 2003, his office won a conviction against Canen, and then years later joined defense efforts to free her from a 55-year sentence when new evidence came to light.

canen Canen

Canen’s case illustrates a trend reported by the National Registry of Exonerations maintained by the law schools at the University of Michigan and Northwestern University. In a report this month, the registry concluded that prosecutors or police last year initiated or cooperated in more than half of the 63 known homicide and sex-crime exonerations last year, a record high.

Canen was convicted in 2005 of killing 94-year-old Helen Sailor, largely on the strength of fingerprints on a pill bottle in Sailor’s home that authorities testified were Canen’s. Her conviction was affirmed by the Indiana Supreme Court, but in post-conviction relief, defense attorney Cara Shaefer Wieneke said a new expert re-examined that crucial evidence and concluded Canen’s prints didn’t match.

bunch Bunch

The defense review was provided to Hill’s office, and the state witness, “to his credit, at least made the determination he had been wrong about what he had testified,” Hill said.

As a PCR hearing neared, Wieneke got a call “out of the blue” from Hill’s office. “I never would have known any of that,” she said. “After that point, they really took the lead in terms of getting things in front of a judge.”

Wieneke said prosecutors joined a defense motion to vacate Canen’s conviction in November, and Canen walked out of prison the next day. “It was a really great turning point that they were willing to jump on board,” Wieneke said.

watson Watson

Bunch’s experience, however, reflects a continuing reluctance among some authorities to reconsider exculpatory evidence and claims of actual innocence.

Convicted of setting a fire in her mobile home she shared with her 3-year-old son Anthony in Decatur County, Bunch professed her innocence for more than 17 years.

Key to evidence against Bunch was testimony from witnesses including an ATF agent that accelerants were used to start the fire. The agency, though, failed to disclose documents that contradicted the testimony and evidence samples that were negative for the alleged accelerants.

The Indiana Court of Appeals in a 2-1 ruling ordered a new trial for Bunch, in part due to the withheld evidence and also because of the evolving science of arson forensics. The Supreme Court chose not to review the ruling. Bunch was freed in September 2012, and prosecutors dropped charges against her in December.

“The state of Indiana did not support her efforts to overturn her conviction,” said Faegre Baker Daniels LLP partner Jon Laramore, who joined Bunch’s defense team that succeeded in exonerating her. “Her conviction was overturned over the state’s opposition.”

Professor Fran Watson leads the Wrongful Conviction Clinic at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. She said attitudes of prosecutors toward re-examining possible wrongful convictions or cases of actual innocence “are beginning to change, and perhaps it changes faster in some places than others, and it’s always going to be case by case.”

exonerated-facts.jpgWatson said the case of Larry Mayes, who in 2001 became the first person in Indiana cleared through re-examination of DNA evidence during post-conviction relief, was a turning point. It also was the first case Watson handled through the clinic. Lake County prosecutors joined defense attorneys in vacating Mayes’ conviction.

“When science changes just a little bit, do we as a society want to say, you only get one bite at the apple, even though now science has advanced to the point that you can actually show innocence?” she asked.

Indiana University Maurer School of Law Professor Ryan Scott has written extensively on criminal procedure and sentencing and recently attended a sentencing conference at Wake Forest University School of Law. There he met Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins, who formed one of the nation’s first conviction integrity units specifically to review claims of innocence.

“Prosecutors are increasingly willing to cooperate in efforts to investigate credible claims of innocence,” Scott said. “That wasn’t always true.”

Scott said “tough on crime” stances tended to make prosecutors loath to re-examine such cases. “The assumption for many years among prosecutors was it was bad politics to cooperate” with exoneration efforts. In Dallas, Scott said, “the public has responded quite favorably because it helps to confirm the credibility of the system.”•

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  1. My daughter was taken from my home at the end of June/2014. I said I would sign the safety plan but my husband would not. My husband said he would leave the house so my daughter could stay with me but the case worker said no her mind is made up she is taking my daughter. My daughter went to a friends and then the friend filed a restraining order which she was told by dcs if she did not then they would take my daughter away from her. The restraining order was not in effect until we were to go to court. Eventually it was dropped but for 2 months DCS refused to allow me to have any contact and was using the restraining order as the reason but it was not in effect. This was Dcs violating my rights. Please help me I don't have the money for an attorney. Can anyone take this case Pro Bono?

  2. If justice is not found in a court room, it's time to clean house!!! Even judges are accountable to a higher Judge!!!

  3. The small claims system, based on my recent and current usage of it, is not exactly a shining example of justice prevailing. The system appears slow and clunky and people involved seem uninterested in actually serving justice within a reasonable time frame. Any improvement in accountability and performance would gain a vote from me. Speaking of voting, what do the people know about judges and justice from the bench perspective. I think they have a tendency to "vote" for judges based on party affiliation or name coolness factor (like Stoner, for example!). I don't know what to do in my current situation other than grin and bear it, but my case is an example of things working neither smoothly, effectively nor expeditiously. After this experience I'd pay more to have the higher courts hear the case -- if I had the money. Oh the conundrum.

  4. My dear Smith, I was beginning to fear, from your absense, that some Obrien of the Nanny State had you in Room 101. So glad to see you back and speaking truth to power, old chum.

  5. here is one from Reason magazine. these are not my words, but they are legitimate concerns. http://reason.com/blog/2010/03/03/fearmongering-at-the-splc quote: "The Southern Poverty Law Center, which would paint a box of Wheaties as an extremist threat if it thought that would help it raise funds, has issued a new "intelligence report" announcing that "an astonishing 363 new Patriot groups appeared in 2009, with the totals going from 149 groups (including 42 militias) to 512 (127 of them militias) -- a 244% jump." To illustrate how dangerous these groups are, the Center cites some recent arrests of right-wing figures for planning or carrying out violent attacks. But it doesn't demonstrate that any of the arrestees were a part of the Patriot milieu, and indeed it includes some cases involving racist skinheads, who are another movement entirely. As far as the SPLC is concerned, though, skinheads and Birchers and Glenn Beck fans are all tied together in one big ball of scary. The group delights in finding tenuous ties between the tendencies it tracks, then describing its discoveries in as ominous a tone as possible." --- I wonder if all the republicans that belong to the ISBA would like to know who and why this outfit was called upon to receive such accolades. I remember when they were off calling Trent Lott a bigot too. Preposterous that this man was brought to an overwhelmingly republican state to speak. This is a nakedly partisan institution and it was a seriously bad choice.

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