Using the Internet to help the wrongfully accused

Robert Baltovich
Image by Sheila Steele via Flickr

From “The Forensic Examiner”  Fall 2008

Truth in Justice: Organization Uses Web Site to Fight for Rights of Wrongly Accused

By John Lechliter, Editor in Chief

Sheila Berry has been transformed by the American criminal justice system.
As a victim/witness coordinator, she experienced “tunnel vision” in 1985, regarding a murder case that seemed a slam dunk to her colleagues in the prosecutor’s office.
A 19-year-old woman had been beaten, murdered, and left atop a burning bed in an Appleton, Wisconsin, apartment. The man suspected of killing her had already been charged with the attempted rape of a woman who looked strikingly like the murder victim, and in another sexual assault of which he was suspected, a bed had been set ablaze.

A criminal profiler studied the case and proclaimed it to be a “disorganized sex crime,” even though the victim had not been sexually assaulted. The expert’s opinion seemed to solidify the circumstantial case.

Berry and her colleagues went to the assistant district attorney who was in charge of the case and told him he should prosecute because he could win an easy conviction. His response surprised them.

“Is that what you think it’s about?” the assistant DA asked. Though the circumstances strongly pointed to guilt, the evidence wasn’t there.

Five years passed, and the unsolved case nagged at Berry. She was working in the Winnebago County, Wisconsin, district attorney’s office when she learned of a rapist who had gone to the same school as the victim. She called the Appleton police department in an attempt to get investigators to consider the new suspect. An officer told her he already knew who committed the murder, and the man was already in prison for another crime. Tunnel vision afflicted him.

The real murderer later wound up implicating himself when he spoke about the killing. He was a burglar who panicked when the victim had returned to the apartment. He killed her, and then he set the bed ablaze.

Berry knew that if not for the wise assistant DA, she could have become involved in prosecuting an innocent man.

Her journey to becoming a crusader for the innocent had begun.

Along the way, Berry’s conviction was bolstered by her dealings with a corrupt prosecutor who was apparently more interested in scoring political points than in finding truth and justice. And she went on to write a book about a case where she believes a woman went to prison for a murder she did not commit.

Berry today is an author, investigator, and a tireless advocate for those she believes to be innocent. From her home in Richmond, Virginia, she and her husband, Doug, run a Web site, http://www.TruthInJustice.org, to shine light on cases of wrongful imprisonment.

The site doesn’t have much in the way of cutting-edge video and graphics. What it contains are more then 1,600 pages of materials, much of it culled from news organizations. The Berrys scour through the Internet every day to find compelling stories of men and women who have been unjustly convicted.

Thanks to prosecutorial tunnel vision, there is no shortage of cases for Truth In Justice to tackle. The “Recent Cases” link features more than 300 people who have been exonerated and freed after having been wrongly convicted.

The site has drawn the attention of broadcast news network producers, including those at CBS and NBC, who seek stories about the falsely accused for news programs such as 60 Minutes. “One producer called it one-stop shopping for news magazines,” she said.

Causes of Bad Convictions
Berry cites tunnel vision as one of the chief causes of wrongful convictions. Often, she says, prosecutors develop an emotional attachment to the theory they have developed. Their work becomes more focused on proving the theory true rather than finding the truth.

“Some prosecutors get to the point where they are not trying a person—they are trying a theory,” Berry said. “They develop a very personal relationship with their theory. They will not let go of it.”

This attitude may make it hard for a prosecutor to let go of a theory even when evidence to the contrary is produced. Everything that supports the theory is accepted while everything that “doesn’t fit” with the theory is dismissed.

“Junk science” is also a problem that contributes to wrongful convictions, according to Berry. Forensic expert witnesses can be motivated to provide the information that the prosecutor wants to hear, and some may develop forensic techniques or methods of analysis that do not stand scientific scrutiny.

She cited one recent case where a forensic expert testified in a trial that the defendant had been positively identified by the ear print he left at the crime scene when he had pressed his ear to a door to listen to what was going on inside. The jury bought the testimony and convicted the man, but the conviction was overturned on appeal.

Berry says there has been much talk in recent years about the “CSI effect” on cases. The theory goes that jurors have been conditioned by watching such TV forensic shows as “CSI” into expecting that in order to prove guilt there must be high-tech evidence presented, such as DNA analysis. “They talk about the ‘CSI effect,’ but that is just a myth,” Berry said. “People are still willing to believe whatever experts tell them.”

Forensic testimony is powerful, Berry said, and forensic experts must hold themselves to the highest of standards in order to avoid becoming a contributing factor to a miscarriage of justice. “Maintain your objectivity,” Berry urges forensic experts. “Stay honest and ethical. Don’t take shortcuts.”

She then quoted Plato, who said, “Science without virtue is immoral science.”

Arson Cases
Among the biggest areas producing wrongful convictions are arson investigations, Berry said. She said there is often pressure to consider arson in cases where someone is killed and there is a survivor to blame. The very nature of arson implies that some forensic evidence would have been destroyed in the fire.

Fire crime scenes can be difficult to investigate, leaving much emphasis on the biases and opinions of the fire investigator. The Truth in Justice Web site reports that there are 500,000 structure fires overall a year; 75,000 of them are labeled suspicious. A page on the Web site states: “John Lentini, who has campaigned widely to improve investigators’ knowledge, says most experts he talks with believe the accuracy of fire investigators is at best 80%—meaning as many as 15,000 mistaken investigations each year, and who knows how many convictions.”

In 2000, Berry helped to form the Tetrahedron Committee, named after the chemical symbol for fire.  The committee now includes 20 arson experts, who volunteer to review arson cases. The information they gather is shared with attorneys or innocence projects involved with arson cases.

Berry acts as a facilitator for the committee, taking in evidence, burning CDs, and distributing information to the parties who need it.

Forensic Experts Can Help
Forensic experts of all kinds can volunteer through Truth in Justice to help wrongfully accused people avoid or be released from prison. Keeping the wrong person out of prison can often help bring justice to the real guilty parties, which in turn can save lives.

Berry said that forensic experts can volunteer their services by sending her an e-mail through the http://www.TruthInJustice.org Web site. Some who volunteer may be contacted immediately with a case to help with, while others may not hear back for some time, depending on the nature of the caseload.

Whether or not they volunteer, Berry urged forensic experts and those in the criminal justice system to consider the growing number of cases that have been overturned by DNA evidence. No nation has a perfect justice system, but evidence has been mounting in recent years that wrongful convictions occur at a disturbing rate in the United States.

All who are involved in a criminal justice case are charged with finding truth. Without truth, Berry says, there can be no justice.

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2 Comments

Filed under Arson Investigator, crime and justice, Criminal Investigations, forensic investigations, Home, Specialties, Wrongful Convictions

2 responses to “Using the Internet to help the wrongfully accused

  1. i need help my brother just got sentence to life in prison without the possiably of parole and he’s innocence if you can lead me to anyone or anything to help me please let me know

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