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ST. LOUIS (AP) — A nationwide push by prosecutors and police to re-examine possible wrongful convictions contributed to a record number of exonerations in 2013, according to a report released Tuesday.
 
The National Registry of Exonerations says 87 people falsely convicted of crimes were exonerated last year, four more than in 2009, the year with the next highest total. The joint effort by the Northwestern University and University of Michigan law schools has documented more than 1,300 such cases in the U.S. since 1989 while also identifying another 1,100 "group exonerations" involving widespread police misconduct, primarily related to planted drug and gun evidence.
 
The new report shows that nearly 40 percent of exonerations recorded in 2013 were either initiated by law enforcement or included police and prosecutors' cooperation. One year earlier, nearly half of the exonerations involved such reviews.
 
"Police and prosecutors have become more attentive and concerned about the danger of false conviction," said registry editor Samuel Gross, a Michigan law professor. "We are working harder to identify the mistakes we made years ago, and we are catching more of them."
 
Texas topped the state-by-state breakdown with 13 exonerations in 2013, followed by Illinois, New York, Washington, California, Michigan and Missouri.
 
District attorneys in the counties containing Dallas, Chicago, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Santa Clara, Calif., are among those to recently create "conviction integrity" units. The International Association of Chiefs of Police also is pushing to reduce wrongful convictions, joined by the U.S. Justice Department and The Innocence Project, an advocacy group that seeks to overturn wrongful convictions. The association's recommendations to local departments include new guidelines for conducting photo lineups and witness interviews to reduce false confessions.
 
Fifteen of the 87 documented cases in 2013 involved convictions obtained after a defendant pleaded guilty, typically to avoid a longer prison sentence. Forty of the cases involved murder convictions, with another 18 overturned convictions for rape or sexual assault.
 
The number of exonerations based on DNA testing continued to decline, accounting for about one-fifth of the year's total.
 
"It's extremely valuable to use," Gross said. "But most crimes don't involve DNA evidence. ... DNA has taught us a huge amount about the criminal justice system. Biological evidence has forced all of us to realize that we've made a lot of mistakes. But most exonerations involve shoe-leather, not DNA."
 
In Illinois, Nicole Harris and Daniel Taylor each received certificates of innocence from a Cook County judge in January after their respective murder convictions were tossed out in 2013 — a designation that allows both to receive financial compensation from the state. Harris had been convicted in 2005 of strangling her 4-year-old son, who had an elastic band wrapped around his neck. Taylor was released after spending more than 20 years in prison for a fatal robbery that occurred while he was in police custody for an unrelated incident.
 
In Missouri, former death row inmate Reginald Griffin went free in October 2013 after a small-town prosecutor declined to refile murder charges in connection with a 1983 prison stabbing for which Griffin spent nearly three decades behind bars. Griffin denied his involvement but was convicted after two inmates claimed to have seen him stab the prisoner. One of those inmates later recanted, saying he had not seen the attack. An appellate attorney also discovered that prosecutors had withheld a report that guards had confiscated a sharpened screwdriver from another inmate as he was attempting to leave the area where the attack took place.
 
Ryan Ferguson, convicted in 2005 in the beating death of a Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune sports editor, was freed in November 2013 after a state appeals court panel ruled prosecutors had withheld evidence from his attorneys and that he didn't get a fair trial. The state attorney general's office decided not to retry Ferguson, who had received a 25-year prison sentence.
 
Like their counterparts across the country, Missouri prosecutors are reviewing not just questionable individual convictions but also the broader issues that lead to exonerations, from coerced confessions to contaminated crime labs.
 
"It's the duty of police and prosecutors to protect everyone in the community, including victims and defendants," said Boone County Prosecutor Dan Knight. "We want the process to be as fair and transparent as possible."
 
___
 
Online: National Registry of Exonerations: http://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Pages/about.aspx
Published in National News

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri county prosecutors are working together to improve their crime-fighting efforts.

The Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys has created committees to discuss best practices, with a focus on getting convictions while protecting the rights of criminal defendants.

The Kansas City Star reports the committees will study such issues as handling forensic evidence, eyewitness testimony and the use of jailhouse informants. Other subcommittees will consider handling cases involving children, the elderly, drunken driving and sex crimes.

Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd says the effort was prompted in part by two recent cases — the release of 29-year-old Ryan Ferguson after he was jailed for more than a decade for a Columbia homicide, and the dismissal of sexual assault allegations in a Maryville case that caused a public uproar.

Published in Local News
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) - Prosecutors will no longer seek the death penalty against a southwest Missouri man who is charged with killing a classmate.
 
Prosecutors said Wednesday that they dropped the possibility of capital punishment after 20-year-old Gabriel Roche of Republic agreed to have his case decided by a judge, not a jury.
 
Roche is charged with first-degree murder and armed criminal action in the December 2011 death of 17-year-old Weston North. Roche took his classmate to a secluded area and stabbed him before slitting his throat.
 
Prosecutors say Roche believed North was a police informant.
 
The Springfield News-Leader reports Roche's attorneys didn't dispute that their client killed North. They asked the judge to consider charging him with second-degree murder, arguing that Roche was on drugs and hallucinating during the killing.
Published in Local News

CLEVELAND (AP) - A Cleveland man accused of holding three women captive in his home for about a decade has pleaded guilty in a deal to avoid the death penalty.

Ariel Castro entered the plea Friday. In exchange, prosecutors are recommending the 53-year-old Castro be sentenced to life without parole plus 1,000 years.

Castro says a pornography addiction and "sexual problem" have taken a toll on his mind. He also says he was sexually abused as a child.

He had been charged in a 977-count indictment. He is pleading guilty to 937 counts.

He had been scheduled for trial Aug. 5 on allegations that include repeatedly restraining the women and punching and starving one woman until she had a miscarriage.

The women disappeared separately between 2002 and 2004. They escaped from Castro's house May 6.

Published in National News

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) - Missouri prosecutors advising police on undercover investigations now have greater legal protection that their conduct won't violate ethical rules.

A recent change to the Missouri Supreme Court's Rules of Professional Conduct explicitly allows government lawyers to collaborate on undercover operations without risking sanction for professional misconduct.

The amendment further codifies a tactic that former Cape Girardeau County prosecutor Morley Swingle calls "the oldest trick in the criminal investigator's book" - lying to a suspect to help solve a case. Swingle is now an assistant U.S. attorney.

Missouri is among 10 states to make similar revisions to its conduct codes for lawyers. Many came in response to a Colorado case in which a prosecutor's law license was suspended after he posed as a public defender to elicit a murder confession.

Published in Local News

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