Guilty until proven innocent: how the Center on Wrongful Convictions exonerates the wrongly convicted.
Subject: Justice, Administration of (Analysis)
Justice, Administration of (United States)
Author: Kern, Tanja
Pub Date: 12/22/2011
Publication: Name: The Forensic Examiner Publisher: American College of Forensic Examiners Audience: Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health; Law; Science and technology Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 American College of Forensic Examiners ISSN: 1084-5569
Issue: Date: Winter, 2011 Source Volume: 20 Source Issue: 3
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 275636307

In 1997, an Illinois jury convicted Lavelle Davis guilty of the murder of Patrick Ferguson. This was largely based on a lip print that two prosecution forensic witnesses claimed only Davis could have left. The witnesses, Leanne Gray, an Illinois State Police latent fingerprint examiner, and Steven McKasson, a document examiner with the Southern Illinois forensic science lab, told the jury that lip prints are an accepted form of identification. The problem: apparently the Davis case is the only reported case in which a lip print was introduced into the case as evidence.


The lip print, which was found on duct tape near the murder scene, was the only physical evidence connecting Davis to the crime. In May 1999, the Second District Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the conviction, even while conceding that the trial judge had failed to hold a hearing that is required before novel scientific evidence can be admitted into evidence.

After the Illinois Supreme Court denied leave to appeal, Davis's pro bono attorneys filed a petition for post-conviction relief, which Kane County Circuit Court Judge Timothy Q. Sheldon granted in 2006, following a hearing at which independent experts testified that lip print identification is not accepted science. In addition, the attorneys introduced a letter from the chief of the FBI's latent fingerprint unit stating: "The FBI Laboratory has not conducted any validation studies of lip print identification, and has determined that it will not perform lip print analysis."

At the trial, in addition to the phony lip print evidence, the prosecution sponsored the testimony of an eyewitness who had admitted he lied to police, and had been unable to identify Davis as a suspect. Judge Sheldon found his testimony was "wrought with contradictions and lies and inconsistencies." Judge Sheldon also found that prosecutorial misconduct and ineffective assistance of defense counsel were factors in Davis's wrongful conviction.

In April 2009, the prosecution dropped the charges against Davis, who had no prior criminal record. Eight months later, his conviction was officially expunged.

For nearly 14 years, Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions has worked to exonerate wrongly convicted men and women in Illinois. As an organization that strives to reform the criminal justice system in the United States, the Center on Wrongful Convictions has been an integral part of 23 cases. They maintain there are four basic causes of wrongful convictions in the U.S.:

* Erroneous eyewitness testimony

* Coerced and false confessions

* Police misconduct

* Snitches (informant)


In 1993, the center used DNA to help free Kirk Noble Bloodsworth, a former Marine discus champion, who was sentenced to death in Baltimore County, Maryland, in 1985 for the murder of nine-year-old Dawn Hamilton. After Bloodsworth's conviction was reversed in 1986, he occupied a cell directly above a cell occupied by Kimberly Shay Ruffner, who was serving a sentence for another rape and who--a decade after Bloodsworth's exoneration--would be linked by DNA to the rape and murder of the Hamilton child.

The principal evidence purporting to link Bloodsworth to the 1984 crime was the testimony of five witnesses who placed him either with the victim, or near the scene of the crime at the time it was believed to have occurred. In addition, the prosecution introduced forensic evidence claiming to link a pair of his shoes to marks on the victim's body.

The Maryland Court of Appeals overturned Bloodsworth's conviction in 1986, after finding that the prosecution had illegally withheld potentially exculpatory evidence from the defense, Bloodsworth v. State, 307 Md. 164 (1986). However, Bloodsworth was retried, again convicted, and sentenced to two life terms. That conviction and sentence was affirmed on appeal, Bloodsworth v. State, 76 Md. App. 23 (1988).

In 1992, however, Centurion Ministries of Princeton, New Jersey, helped Bloodsworth obtain court approval for the testing of biological material preserved from the crime, which at the time was new DNA technology known as PCR (polymerase chain reaction). The tests, performed by Edward Blake of Forensic Science Associates in Richmond, California, established Bloodsworth's innocence. After the FBI confirmed the results, Bloodsworth was released on June 28, 1993. He was the first U.S. death row prisoner to be exonerated by DNA. In December 1994, Maryland Governor William Donald Schaefer granted Boodsworth a full pardon based on innocence.


The center accepts both non-DNA cases and DNA cases, but non-DNA cases are moving increasingly into the forefront of the criminal justice reform movement, because almost all DNA testing now is done prior to trial. Through the center's investigation and litigation of non-DNA cases, its staff has developed expertise in cases involving false confessions, jailhouse informants, and fire deaths.

In 2009, 43-year-old Ronald Kitchen, who confessed under extreme physical duress to taking part in five murders 21 years ago, was exonerated and freed from prison. Kitchen spent 13 of his 21 years behind bars on death row.

Kitchen's conviction rested primarily on his confession, but also involved a jailhouse snitch, Willie Williams, who has admitted that he lied when he testified that both Kitchen and his innocent co-defendant Marvin Reeves had confessed the crime to him. The tortured confession implicated Reeves in the murders, although he had nothing to do with them. Both convictions rested in part on the failure of Illinois' Cook County prosecutors to provide defense attorneys with evidence of benefits provided to Willie Williams in return for his testimony.


Recent findings of a Better Government Association (BGA) investigation describe the high cost of wrongful convictions. A seven-month probe, which was done along with the Center on Wrongful Convictions and tracked exonerations between 1989 and 2010, found that taxpayers spent $214 million during that time period to send 85 innocent men and women to jail for a collective 926 years. But wrongful convictions don't only cost the state money. They also cost lives. "This is a shameful failure of government in financial and human terms," says BGA President and CEO Andy Shaw. "Public servants who are sworn to uphold the law and protect the public have done just the opposite in far too many cases."

According to the BGA report, the real culprits responsible for the crimes that sent the 85 innocent individuals to prison went on to commit at least 14 murders, 10 kidnappings, 11 sexual assaults, and 62 other felonious acts while the wrongly convicted sat in prison.

"This landmark investigation underscores the need for sweeping reforms of law enforcement, forensics, and the judiciary," says Rob Warden, the Center on Wrongful Convictions' executive director. Warden worked with the BGA to draft a series of proposals for consideration by state officials. The BGA/CWC study shows that Forensic specialists who gave questionable forensic evidence or testimony appear in 29 cases. Alleged government error, often rising to the level of misconduct, and eyewitness misidentification, are the two leading causes of wrongful conviction. Alleged government misconduct or error appears in 81 out of the 85 cases, and eyewitnesses fingered the wrong person in 46.

False confessions occur in 33 cases, incentivized witness testimony in 30, and allegations of ineffective counsel in 22. In the alleged government error and misconduct arena, police behavior dominated (66 cases), followed by prosecutors (44).

Jurisdictions in various parts of the country have introduced reforms to address the canses of wrongful conviction, but there is still a lot of work to be done. The BGA and the CWC are backing a series of reforms, including recording interrogations and confessions in all major felony cases, the adoption of ABA-recommended rules for prosecutors that would require them to work to right wrongful convictions, and the "blind" administration of police lineups and photo arrays. All of these policies have been embraced in other states.

Overall, the Center on Wrongful Convictions has been and will continue to be an important player of criminal justice system reform. If you or someone you know would like to request assistance from the Center on Wrongful Convictions, visit their website at


About Us (2010, November 3). In Center on Wrongful Convictions. Retrieved June 2, 2011, from http://www.

A Landmark BGA Investigation: The High Costs of Wrongful Convictions. Retreived July 6, 3011, from http://www, bga_investigation_the_high_costs of wrongful_convictions/?categoryid=6

Judge Doubts Lip Print, Orders Retrial in Murder. Retreived July 22, 2011, from http:// mar 10,0,7408802.story

The Causes of Wrongful Conviction (n.d.). In The Innocence Project. Retrieved June 14, 2011, from http://

Lip Print Conviction Reversed. Retrieved July 22, 2011, from, http://


Check out the Registered Investigator[R] program for a more in-depth look at the field of investigation, which will instruct, measure, and assess the knowledge and competency of investigators in the public and private sectors. Enroll online today at, or call (800) 423-9737 for more information.
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.