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hris Perri Law is a criminal defense law firm located in Austin, Texas.

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Chris' Blog

The blog of Chris Perri Law, written by Chris Perri and Shannon Perri. Read the latest in exciting cases where justice is served.

Filtering by Tag: post conviction

You’ve been found guilty – now what?

Chris Perri

Photograph by  Stefan Kalweit

Photograph by Stefan Kalweit

Being convicted of a crime can have devastating consequences, including incarceration, loss of civil liberties, and difficulty finding a job. Yet the unfortunate truth is that people are wrongfully convicted all the time. That said, a guilty sentence doesn’t mean the fight is over. A major part of my practice focuses on post-conviction remedies, which can be categorized into two types: Appeals and Writs. Here, I’m going to explain the differences between these two procedures.

APPEALS:

Following a judgment of conviction, defendants have 30 days to alert the trial court that they want to appeal, so it’s important to quickly find a post-conviction criminal defense attorney. On appeal, the defense must argue that the trial judge erred in ruling on some issue in the case. For example, many defendants unsuccessfully argue to the trial judge that their vehicle was illegally searched during a traffic stop. If the trial judge rules that the search was legal, defendants can appeal this ruling to the Court of Appeals. The appeal proceeds “on the record,” meaning that no additional evidence can be presented in the appellate proceedings (the “record” is the transcript of the proceedings at the trial). A defendant cannot raise an issue for the first time on appeal, as there can be no error by the trial judge if the issue was never brought before that judge for a ruling. In other words, the error must be “preserved” in order for it to be considered on appeal.

Normally, an appeal is only available if the defendant lost at a trial or evidentiary hearing. When a defendant pleads guilty and the judge sentences that defendant according to a negotiated plea bargain, there’s nothing to appeal, even if the defendant is unhappy about the result of the case. In such a situation, a defendant should consider filing a writ, which is discussed below.

WRITS:

Sometimes, new evidence arises after a conviction becomes final. In order to present this evidence to the court, a defendant must file an application for writ of habeas corpus. In Latin, “habeas corpus” means “produce the person,”, and if the court issues the writ, it is directing the prison warden to release the defendant, usually for a new trial.

Writs are different from appeals because new evidence can be presented to prove the claim the defendant is making. For example, if the defendant believes there is new scientific evidence that proves their innocence, this evidence can be introduced through a writ. The most common claim on writs is “ineffective assistance of counsel,” meaning that the trial attorney committed some type of error or omission that deprived the defendant of their constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel and a fair trial.

The defendant carries the burden of proving any writ claim. “Innocent until proven guilty” no longer applies once a defendant is convicted, so the attorney handling the writ must use investigative tools to develop the claim. Writs are commonly used when a defendant pleads guilty based on bad advice from their lawyer, such as incorrect advice about the immigration consequences of a conviction. As explained above, an appeal is not available in those situations because the trial court never ruled adversely on an issue; however, a writ allows the defendant to develop a record regarding the trial counsel’s alleged ineffective assistance.

One of the most famous writs in Texas criminal law history involved Michael Morton, who was wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife in Williamson County and spent nearly 25 years in prison. Morton’s writ lawyers proved that the prosecutor hid evidence that a third party committed the murder, and Morton was ultimately set free.

If you or a loved one has been wrongfully convicted of a crime, contact an experienced post-conviction attorney for a consultation. Chris Perri Law has experience successfully overturning wrongful convictions and helping people get back their lives and liberties. Call Chris at (512)917-4378.

Nearly 5,000 Austin Convictions in Limbo due to DNA Lab Errors, But Relief for the Wrongfully Imprisoned Still a Long Ways Off

Chris Perri

Photograph by University of Michigan DNA Lab

Photograph by University of Michigan DNA Lab

The Austin American-Statesman has thoroughly covered the fallout from the Austin Police Department’s DNA lab closure, but if you haven’t been following the news closely, it’s difficult to find one article that provides the overall picture of what’s going on with the DNA issues in Travis County. Below, I’ve summarized the recent Austin DNA Lab scandal, along with providing a legal perspective on how these revelations might affect people who were convicted on the basis of false DNA evidence.

Recalculations vs. Retesting

In the summer of 2015, the FBI announced that errors in its database might have caused nationwide laboratory miscalculations of the probability that DNA found in evidentiary mixtures matched particular defendants’ known DNA profiles. Here is a blog post I wrote on the subject.

The important takeaway is that while the FBI’s database error affected cases nationwide, it only applied to DNA mixtures, which is a type of sample that contains two or more people’s DNA. If DNA mixture evidence contributed to a defendant’s conviction, then the defendant can request a recalculation of the probability that the mixture contained the defendant’s known DNA profile. Such recalculations do NOT involve any re-testing, as the lab simply uses the corrected database protocols to recalculate the probability of a match. The FBI database issues do not implicate the reliability of the actual testing conducted by the various forensic laboratories.

While government agencies argued that the recalculations would not materially affect any pending cases, these assurances became less credible when recalculations in a Galveston murder case drastically reduced the probability that the defendant was the perpetrator.

Meanwhile, the DNA retesting issue rocked the Austin Police Department (APD) last summer, and it could affect up to 5000 past convictions. The chaos began when the Texas Forensic Science Commission conducted an audit of APD’s DNA Laboratory last spring, and the Commission discovered a host of unreliable scientific practices pervading the lab. Among the highlights:

1.     Improper Stochastic Threshold: DNA labs must adopt guidelines to determine whether their interpretation of each DNA sample is scientifically reliable. The stochastic threshold is the point at which a scientist can reliably interpret DNA in a manner that’s not muddled by random effects, such as allele dropout. At APD’s lab, the scientists used a quantitative baseline (as opposed to a qualitative one) as its stochastic threshold, despite the fact that no peer-reviewed journal had ever accepted such a quant-based threshold. Without a valid stochastic threshold, the lab cannot be certain whether its testing results were merely a product of randomness, as opposed to sound scientific process. Because an improper protocol was used at the very beginning stages of all DNA testing, any of the final interpretative results are unreliable. Garbage in, garbage out.

2.     Suspect or Victim-Driven Testing: Sound scientific method requires that scientists select an unknown sample’s comparison loci (the particular segment of DNA material that will later be compared to the known DNA profiles) without knowledge of which comparison loci are clearest on the known DNA profiles. However, APD’s “scientists” were essentially cheating, as they used the known DNA profiles of suspects and victims in order to determine which loci to examine in the unknown samples. This practice created a bias towards finding a match.

3.     Unclear Use of Protocol Deviation: Lab technicians occasionally deviated from clear technical guidelines when it suited the particular needs of a case. Part of the problem stems from APD’s scientists not remaining independent from the investigative team, as the scientists often felt pressure from investigators to return favorable results. This collusion is one of the main reasons why I’ve advocated an independent lab, and the Travis County judges agreed in a proclamation last December.

4.     Contamination: In one egregious example of incompetence, the Forensic Science Commission observed carry-over contamination between the DNA on a victim’s vaginal swab and the DNA on a suspect’s penile swab, despite the fact that this suspect was later determined to be unrelated to the offense. It took re-testing by a different laboratory before this suspect was cleared for an offense he did not commit.

After the Commission’s report, there was also a revelation that a freezer housing hundreds of DNA samples broke down last spring for eight days, leaving officials uncertain whether evidentiary samples had been damaged.

Somehow, despite these systemic problems at APD’s DNA lab, it received annual accreditations for over a decade. A Statesman article revealed that the accrediting body "did not test if a lab’s scientific processes were appropriate for analyses." That seems like a pretty huge oversight in the accreditation process.

The Fallout

Since the revelation of these monumental problems at APD’s DNA Lab, it has closed down and the testing on all pending cases has been sent to independent labs. However, the problem remains of what to do about the convictions from 2005-2016 that were based on faulty DNA testing. Estimates on the number of cases that need to be reviewed range from 3,600 to 5,000.

The Travis County Commissioners and City Council have been considering options for implementing a materiality review to determine which cases need to have the DNA evidence retested, with cost estimates for this review ranging from $6 million to $14 million. However, as of today, the bureaucrats haven’t made a decision, and they appear to be leaning towards the least costly option. I’ve argued that at a minimum, this materiality review must be independent from the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, which has a conflict of interest by virtue of securing the convictions that are under review.

The critical point right now is that the essential independent materiality review of the thousands of cases hasn’t yet begun, and there’s no telling how long it will take to create an independent commission to conduct the review. Even then, a materiality review will only identify the cases in which DNA evidence was a material contributor to a conviction, and at that point, DNA re-testing will be ordered. Defendants will then have to wait for the DNA re-testing to be completed before they know whether they’re entitled to a new trial. And if they are entitled to a new trial, the defendants will have to wait even more time while an application for writ of habeas corpus circulates through the trial court and the Court of Criminal Appeals.

Given the lack of agreement in political circles about how best to conduct the review and the time lag to implement any proposed solutions, there’s no relief in sight for defendants waiting on Travis County to solve this mess.

How We Can Help

Chris Perri Law has over a decade of experience in reviewing post-conviction cases. If you or a loved one suffered from a conviction involving DNA evidence that was tested by the Austin Police Department, contact our firm to review the case. If your case was not in Austin but involved DNA mixtures, contact our firm about requesting a re-calculation of the probability that the DNA mixture matched the defendant. We advocate for our clients from the beginning stages of the process (DNA materiality review) through the final litigation of the writ of habeas corpus in order to ensure that wrongfully convicted people are set free. 

The Dirtiest Little Secret of Texas: Our Civil Commitment Law for Sex Offenders Raises Double Jeopardy Concerns

Chris Perri

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Recently, I read this article in the Fort Worth Star Telegram about Texas’ civil commitment law with respect to sex offenders and was left shocked.

While the article mainly concerns a technical change in the law regarding venue for civil commitment trials, hidden towards the end is the unveiling of Texas’ dirty little secret: Since 1998, more than 350 individuals have been civilly committed to a sex-offender treatment facility in Littlefield, Texas, following their completion of lengthy prison sentences. None have been released upon successful completion of the program, and nearly half were sent back to prison for violations of the treatment program’s rules.

For example, a defendant who is convicted of a sex offense might serve 25 years in prison. As his release date approaches, he discovers that the State of Texas wants him to remain incarcerated after the completion of his long sentence. As a result, a new “civil commitment” trial occurs in which the State seeks to prove that he “has a behavioral abnormality that makes him likely to engage in predatory acts of sexual violence.” This seems like a pretty easy burden to prove since the defendant has previously been convicted of a sex offense.

While this procedure might smack of double jeopardy, Tarrant County prosecutor Bill Vassar defends it by arguing: “During his 25 year imprisonment, [the defendant] never had sex offender treatment from a licensed professional. The jury’s verdict ensures that he will get the treatment he needs, and guarantees the citizens of Texas that he will be monitored 24 hours a day.”

This argument exposes two fundamental problems. First, any prosecutor should be ashamed of a criminal justice system that sends a sex offender to a penitentiary that fails to provide any treatment to that individual prior to release. Right there, Mr. Vassar has unwittingly indicted our entire prison system for ineptitude. Second, Mr. Vassar’s argument that the defendant “will get the treatment he needs” from the Littlefield treatment facility is disproved by the evidence that no one has ever been rehabilitated in the program’s 18 years of operation. Leave it to the government to equate success with this zero percent rehabilitation rate.

I sympathize with victims of sex offenses, and I do believe that offenders need to be punished. However, the proper forum for vindicating victims’ rights and punishing offenders is the criminal process. Once an offender has served his/her sentence, our Double Jeopardy Clause forbids further punishment for that offense. In effect, Texas’ civil commitment law allows Texas to circumvent the Constitution by imprisoning a person a second time for the crime. To continually operate such a “treatment” facility for 18 years despite its zero-percent success rate seems to be a brazen misuse of government resources. Moreover, Texans should be offended by the government’s attempt to disguise the civil commitment facility’s true purpose as rehabilitation. This current system serves no one: not the criminal, not the victim, and certainly not the taxpayer. Littlefield is the island where we send the undesirables to never be heard from again.  

Let’s start with some honesty, and then engage in a legitimate debate about whether the Constitution forbids this type of institution as an unconstitutional subsequent punishment.

For more information on this civil commitment trend for sex offenders, check out the Stateman’s recent write-up here.  

An update on the recent DNA testing errors

Chris Perri

Update from previous post:

Last week, the Travis County District Attorney’s Office announced that it has formed a Conviction Integrity Unit in order to facilitate the comprehensive review of all cases that might have been affected by the miscalculations of probabilities related to DNA mixtures from 1999-2015. This is definitely a step in the right direction, as many experienced criminal justice practitioners are concerned that the miscalculations could have affected thousands of cases.

If you or a loved one suffered a conviction in a case involving DNA evidence, it’s important to retain an experienced criminal defense attorney to review your case. Chris Perri Law can determine whether your case was potentially affected by the DNA miscalculations and then assist you in obtaining a recalculation of the DNA evidence. Depending on the results, Chris Perri Law can then file a post-conviction writ of habeas corpus seeking to overturn your conviction. Chris Perri Law offers these post-conviction services on both state and federal cases throughout Texas.

Check out Chris Perri’s video interview with Austin’s Fox 7 News for more information about these mind-blowing DNA developments.

Wrongful convictions may have have resulted from crime labs' exaggeration of DNA results

Chris Perri

 

Austin news station, KXAN, interviews Chris Perri about the issue. 

Over the summer, the Texas Forensic Science Commission, which reviews the current standards for physical evidence in Texas criminal courts, discovered that state crime labs were using outdated protocols for analyzing DNA evidence. In particular, the problems occurred in “mixed DNA” test results, where the labs were exaggerating the likelihood that a particular sample matched a defendant’s DNA.

There are two types of DNA profiles that can come from any given DNA sample: “mixed DNA” (also called “mixtures”) and single-source DNA. Mixtures are the most common type of DNA profiles. A mixture occurs when a DNA sample contains DNA from more than one person. For example, if two or more people touched the handle of a firearm, a DNA sample from this handle would likely be a mixture of multiple people’s DNA. In contrast, a “single source” DNA profile exists when only one person contributed the DNA to a sample. In the case of single-source DNA profiles, matching a given person to the sample is similar to matching a person to a fingerprint left at a crime scene. However, because there are numerous types of DNA profiles that could combine to create a mixture, the probability that a random person besides the defendant could have contributed to this mixture is higher than in the case of single-source DNA profiles.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission recently revealed that state labs have been reporting inaccurately high probabilities of matches between defendants and mixed DNA samples since 1999.

An example of a recent Galveston murder case illustrates the problem. The crime lab reported that the defendant contributed DNA to a mixture from the crime scene, with a certainty of more than a million to one. However, it turns out that the lab was using outdated protocols, and the certainty is actually just forty to one. This means that if you selected 1,000 random people, 25 of them would match the DNA found at the crime scene. That’s hardly enough evidence to convict someone beyond a reasonable doubt.

Everyone knows that eyewitness testimony can be fallible, so prosecutors have placed great weight on scientific DNA evidence when prosecuting cases since the advent of DNA testing in the mid-1990s. Due to jurors learning about the infallibility of DNA science from television crime shows (the CSI effect), jurors often convict defendants on the basis of DNA evidence alone. Now that we know that scientists were inaccurately reporting the probability that crime scene DNA matched particular defendants, many convictions over the last fifteen years may have been based on false evidence, and innocent people could be behind bars.

Police labs and prosecutors’ offices have downplayed the severity of the problem. For example, according to a memorandum from Art Acevedo, the chief of the Austin Police Department, the inaccurate reporting is “unlikely to materially affect any assessment of evidential value.” Court orders will be required in order for the labs to re-test samples to determine accurate statistical probabilities of a match between crime scene samples and defendants’ DNA.

I’m concerned that prosecutors and police forces are sweeping this issue under the rug. Rather than re-assure the public with rhetoric, they should create task forces to revisit every case where DNA played a role in obtaining a conviction, and the labs should recalculate statistical probabilities in all of those cases. After all, it was the State that put false evidence before juries, so the burden should be on the State to correct the problem and regain the public’s confidence that innocent people aren’t behind bars.

If you or a loved one suffered a criminal conviction as a result of mixed DNA test results, you should contact Chris Perri Law to determine whether your case could have been affected by inaccurate scientific testimony. Check out the articles below for more information on this unique and unsettling issue:

http://www.everythinglubbock.com/news/state-regional/new-dna-standards-could-lead-to-thousands-of-retrials-in-texas

http://www.npr.org/2015/10/09/447202433/-great-pause-among-forensic-scientists-as-dna-proves-fallible?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=npr&utm_term=nprnews&utm_content=202509