Saturday, March 6, 2010

A Classic Case of Wrongful Conviction

Harrington said he believed he was protecting the community when he convinced a jury that Gates was the man who raped and killed Catherine Schilling, 21, a college student whose naked body was found in Rock Creek Park in 1981 with five bullet wounds to her head. Gates, all the while, maintained his innocence.

As lead prosecutor, Harrington based his case on several pieces of evidence. A hair taken from Gates was found to have matched a hair found on Schilling's body, according to an FBI forensics analyst. The hair, Harrington later said in court, was the "key" and the "link and the corroboration to every other evidence."
Harrington also relied on the testimony of a paid informant, who told authorities that Gates admitted to killing Schilling during a botched robbery. Gates told lawyers that he never met the informant to whom he supposedly confessed. Harrington said later that it was the first time he had put a paid informant on the witness stand during a trial.


Misconduct by police, prosecutors, judges, shoddy forensic work, jail house snitches, and unreliable witness identification are major factors in the growing list of wrongful convictions. This case has many of those elements.

The prosecutor in this case also reveals another contributing factor - community pressure to convict. Most state and local prosecutors are elected to office. The need to win drives some to ignore the facts and the rules in order to gain a conviction.

We know the causes of wrongful convictions, but what is being done to reduce them? So far, most of the progress has come from private efforts like the Innocence Project. The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission is an exception. But most states, including Idaho, are doing nothing to prevent wrongful convictions. And you wonder why confidence in the criminal justice system is low?


morrisonbonpasse said...

Yes, the Donald Gates case is a classic, and has several elements common to other wrongful convictions case.

One major difference is that he was prosecuted by a U.S. Assistant U.S. Attorney, and U.S. Attorneys are more likely to be probing wrongful convictions in state courts than re-examining their own prosecutions.

One such claimed wrongful conviction case ia that of Alfred Trenkler in Boston in 1993.

Very briefly, in 1991, a bomb exploded in Roslindale (Boston) and tragically killed a Boston Bomb Squad officer, Jeremiah Hurley and maimed his squad partner, Francis Foley. Alfred Trenkler knew the son of the apparently-intended victim of the bomb, Thomas L. Shay, and that coincidence, and another (that he had detonated a large firecracker with a remote control device in 1986), led to the conviction of Alfred and the son, Thomas A. Shay. Alfred had absolutely nothing to do with the bomb. No knowledge, no plan, no action. Nothing. Neither did the son. One theory of the case, developed by the original police investigators, is that the father was responsible for the bomb to make it LOOK LIKE someone was trying to kill him, but the bomb was not expected to explode when the Bomb Squad came to inspect it.

For more information about this case, see the website, and the online book about the case, "Perfectly Innocent." Several copies have been sent to the U.S. Attorney for Boston and to BATFE and the Boston Police Dept and many others. So far, no one has challenged the facts presented in the manuscript. The Home Page of the website has a list of several "key" documents which provide additional information.

Here are highlights of the claim for wrongful conviction:

- Five jurors at Alfred Trenkler's 1993 trial have written to the trial judge, Rya Zobel, over the past year to disavow their verdict and ask for a new trial.

- Several Boston Police Dept. officers have read the manuscript and are concerned that the wrong people were convicted in a case involving the death of one of their own - a Boston Policeman. According to the front page article, and column by Peter Gelzinis, in the 22 November 2009 Boston Herald, the Boston took their concerns to the Office of the U.S. Attorney in September.

- In the 22 November article, Jeremiah Hurley's widow was quoted, as saying, “I do not want anybody in prison who doesn’t belong there,... If there is evidence let’s find it. Let’s hear it.” This represented a change of position for her, and a major reason for that change was that two BPD officers visited her 9 months ago to tell her and her family that the BPD was reviewing the case.

- The case is currently before the First Circuit Court of Appeals, as Alfred Trenkler has appealed Judge Zobel's denial of his request for a new trial. The Government responded on 29 January, after an unusual number of extensions - four. Alfred now has until 6 April to respond. Last week, I wrote to the Dept. of Justice an email/letter to note that the Government's Appellee brief contained 15 FALSE statements or assumptions about the facts in the case.

- Since February 2008, Alfred was incarcerated at the Devens Federal Medical Center prison, as he wears a pacemaker, which was installed in his chest several years ago. However, on 13 November, he was moved across the country, and finally arrived in Tucson on 5 February 2010.

- The New England Innocence Project (NEIP) rejected this case in 2007 because there was no obvious DNA. We later learned that the Government destroyed the physical evidence in 2005/06, but the case is very much alive. On 7 November 2009, Alfred reapplied because the NEIP is one of the regional Innocent Project groups which is now accepting non-DNA cases. The NEIP has written that it is still considering the application for assistance.

Morrison Bonpasse
Alfred Trenkler Innocent Committee
morrison (at)

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