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Univ. of San Diego School of Law

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Monday, January 29, 2007

San Jose Mercury News Re-examines the Santa Clara Criminal Justice System

Here is an extensive article from the San Jose Mercury News that reexamines the Santa Clara, California criminal justice system one year after the Mercury News published a five day series called "Tainted Trials, Stolen Justice", which addressed errors in the system and involved three years of investigation by the paper.

Here is a summary of the improvements made in the past year.

  • A new district attorney has vowed to end a "win at all costs'' culture in the office.
  • An independent state commission, the Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice (FAIR), chaired by former Attorney General John Van de Kamp, is recommending statewide policy changes and new laws to reduce the risk of wrongful convictions in cases relying on eyewitness identifications and jailhouse informants. And the county bar and the California Supreme Court have acted to address longstanding problems in the system.
  • In the past year, six defendants who were sentenced to prison had convictions overturned or were released from custody in cases the Mercury News examined.
  • And the decisions of the 6th District Court of Appeal, which oversees cases in Santa Clara and three neighboring counties, appear to demonstrate a new forcefulness. In the past year, the court has increasingly chastised local judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys for mistakes and misconduct. The court is reversing criminal cases at a rate higher than at any time in at least 18 years.  Since 1988, the court's reversal rate has not exceeded 4.8 percent and averaged 3 percent. Last year, the rate climbed to 5.5 percent--still a small number, but strikingly higher. 

And here is a summary of the problems originally addressed.

Inadequate defense investigation. In three cases, felony convictions were overturned on appeal last year because lawyers for the defendants failed to properly investigate their cases. A fourth case has been scheduled for a hearing in March. Most prominent was the case of Michael Hutchinson, who was set free after seven years in prison based on evidence developed by the Mercury News, which his trial attorney never explored.

Clerical mistakes. Two men were released after authorities discovered clerical errors in state records had wrongly connected them to crimes. One, Longino Acero, spent more than a year in custody because officials incorrectly believed he was required to register as a sex offender.

Judicial errors. Federal judges are considering whether state court rulings that wrongly limited defense evidence at the trials of three different murder defendants warrant overturning the convictions of Timothy Parle, Richard Kolacki and Sonya Daniels.

Jailhouse informants. Roy Lopez Garcia was released after six years in custody when a jury acquitted him of murder in a case that relied heavily on an informant who had previously been discredited by a federal judge.

Withheld evidence. Another federal judge is considering whether to grant a new trial to Dung Pham, convicted of murder in 1998, based on the belated disclosure of physical evidence that points to another suspect.

Eyewitness identification. Kenneth Foley was released after 11 years based on evidence that another man committed the robbery that sent Foley to prison for 25 years to life. The reinvestigation by the district attorney's office was sparked by "Tainted Trials, Stolen Justice.'' Foley's case was one of five plagued by questions about the reliability of eyewitness identification.

Full Story here. . . [Michele Berry]

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