How many innocent people must be freed? A sweeping review is needed

There is a well-known saying, called Blackstone’s formulation, which is supposed to represent the concept behind the judicial systems in the West

It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer

Yet, looking at the US judicial system, it seems like the exact opposite is the case. A lot of people are wrongfully convicted – either through being forced into plea bargains, or though plain wrongful convictions. The Innocence Project, which has been working to free innocent people for 25 years, have freed hundreds of people, many from the death row. Unfortunately, there is not enough resources to help everybody, and sometimes it takes a very unlikely series of events for someone innocent to get the attention of someone who can help.

This is the case with Valentino Dixon. He was wrongfully convicted of murder, and had served 27 years behind bars before getting his conviction overturned. While he family had fought for him getting released, the big breakthrough came when a golf magazine took up his case. Dixon came to the attention of Golf Digest because of his golf-related drawings. And as Golfworld explains, it didn’t take long for the magazine to notice that his conviction seemed rather doubtful.

It took about a hundred drawings before Golf Digest noticed, but when we did, we also noticed his conviction seemed flimsy. So we investigated the case and raised the question of his innocence.

The case is complicated, but on the surface it involves shoddy police work, zero physical evidence linking Dixon, conflicting testimony of unreliable witnesses, the videotaped confession to the crime by another man, a public defender who didn’t call a witness at trial, and perjury charges against those who said Dixon didn’t do it. All together, a fairly clear instance of local officials hastily railroading a young black man with a prior criminal record into jail. Dixon’s past wasn’t spotless, he had sold some cocaine, but that didn’t make him a murderer.

Golf Digest wrote about this, and the story was picked up by other media, without Dixon’s case got any traction. Then his case was picked by 3 Georgetown undergraduate students as their case in a Prison Reform Project course.

Dixon’s case was certainly the most advanced, mostly because he already had an attorney representing him and pursuing his innocence. But the case had stalled. One barrier to such efforts is the challenge of proving there is new evidence that needs to be considered — difficult in this case, since the real killer’s confessions had been well-known for decades.

The three students working on Dixon’s case kept pushing, traveling to visit Dixon in prison, tracking down witnesses, and interviewing the key figures in his original trial. Several interviews revealed the blatant incompetence and callousness of his original trial attorney, who didn’t seem troubled at all by the conviction.

But the bombshell moment occurred when the original prosecutor, unprompted, revealed that after Dixon had been arrested, the investigators had conducted gun residue testing on his hands and clothes, and the test came back negative.

This was a blatant violation of the landmark Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland, which ruled prosecutors are obligated to provide defense attorneys with any material evidence helpful to the defense. Yet in this case, no one knew about the test until the Georgetown students captured the prosecutor talking about it on camera.

In short, these remarkable students broke new investigative ground and contributed to Dixon’s lawyers’ final and ultimately successful motion to overturn his conviction based on new evidence.

If Gold Digest hadn’t picked up the story, creating some media buzz, it is unlikely the case would have gotten the attention of the Georgetown professors running the course, and then the graduate students wouldn’t have begun their digging.

I cannot help wonder how many other wrongfully convicted people there are out there without the benefit of a passion that catches the eye of someone outside the prison. Given what we know about the conduct of US prosecutors and police forces, and in many cases public defenders, I can’t help but think that every case should be reviewed, especially those against poor, non-white people, who historically has been badly served by the US judicial system. This is not a small task, but it should be possible to identify cases with a high risk of wrongful conviction – this would be cases from districts where there has already been identified problems with the methods used by the prosecutor and the police force, cases where the public defender has a noteworthy bad record, and cases where there is evidence of a bias in the system (e.g. black crime against white people).

This is unlikely to happen as long as the GOP, and other though-on-crime politicians, are in political position – including the position of public prosecutor and judge in many cases. The only way to change this, is to vote for better politicians, and then pressure the elected politicians to work for justice, rather than being though on crime.

The original 2012 article in Golf Digest: Golf Saved My Life – Drawings From Prison

Peter Madsen sentenced to life

On Wednesday at 13:00 Danish time, Peter Madsen was found guilty of the murder of Kim Wall, and sentenced to life in prison.

By Danish standards, that is an unusually harsh sentence, as he had no prior convictions of any kind, but this was an unusual case in many ways, as the trial has shown.

I have written about the Peter Madsen trial before (here and here), and don’t really feel that I can add more to the story.

Peter Madsen has said that he will appeal the conviction and sentence.

When someone has been sentenced a lifetime sentence in Denmark, they rarely serve the full time, and are eligible to get freed on parole after 12 years. This is not likely to happen in the case of Peter Madsen though, since you have to be considered to no longer being an danger to society – something which it is unlikely anyone will say about Peter Madsen for a very long time.

More on the Peter Madsen case

Content notice: violence, death, mutilation

In a recent post I wrote about the bizzare case of the death of Swedish journalist Kim Wall, who was last seen on the submarine belonging to amateur rocket builder Peter Madsen.

As I wrote in that post, Peter Madsen claims that she died onboard the submarine in an accident, but that there are many signs that something more sinister had happened – a major reason why many believe so, is that only the torso of Kim Wall has been found, and that it contained stab wounds.

Since my last post, the Danish police gained access to Peter Madsen’s computer, which was found to contain deeply troubling videos of women getting tortured and killed.

And in the newest development, yesterday the Danish police managed to find the head and legs of Kim Wall, allowing them to examine those. The police has already said that there is no fracture in Kim Wall’s skull, making Peter Madsen’s story, about her getting killed by getting hit in the head with a heavy hatch, even more unlikely.

A bizarre case in Denmark

Content note: Violence, death, violence against women, possible murder, mutilation of corpses

The newspapers in Denmark is currently spending much time on one particular story that on one side is pretty common, and on the other side, is quite bizarre.

One the common side, it is the all-to-common story of a man and a woman going somewhere, woman disappears, and later turns up dead.

One the bizarre side, it involves a submarine, a well-known Danish rocket enthusiast, a Swedish journalist, and rumors about the sex tastes of at least some of the people involved.

The story that is known so far is this: On August 10, Swedish journalist Kim Wall boarded a submarine together with Danish rocket enthusiast Peter Madsen. Peter Madsen designed and built the submarine himself, and has been known to give tours in it.

After Wall failed to return home, her boyfriend alarmed the police, who started a search for the submarine, which at that time, also had disappeared.

The submarine was found, and Peter Madsen saved from it by helicopter. While Peter Madsen was saved, the submarine sank because of a leak in it. Peter Madsen claimed that the leak appeared after he had set Kim Wall on land.

So, to sum it up, Kim Wall went on the submarine trip with Peter Madsen, and was set on land. Afterwards, the submarine sank, and Kim Will disappeared on the way home from where she was set on land.

Unsurprisingly, the police didn’t quite buy this story, and started looking closer at the details.

There was camera footage from the place where Kin Wall was supposed to have been put on land, which showed that nothing of the sort happened.

This is where Peter Madsen changed his story – he claimed that Kim Wall had died by an accident in the submarine, and that he had buried her at sea.

Peter Madsen was accused of manslaughter and put into jail pending a trial.

Since then, the torso of Kim Wall has been found, and Kim Wall’s blood and underwear has been found in the submarine (which has been raised).

Currently, Peter Madsen is sticking to his story about burying Kim Wall at sea, claiming that the mutilation of the body must have happened after he threw her into the sea. He  has provided the details that Kim Wall was hit on the head by the hatch, which killed her. He also said that he used a rope to get her up the ladder, which somehow made her underwear slip off her.

Again, unsurprisingly the police isn’t buying it, and has added murder charges and charges of indecent handling of corpses (it is worth noticing that indecent here isn’t necessarily in a sexual sense, but also covers handling corpses in a disrespectful way, such as mutilating them).

The police is working hard to collect as much evidence as possible, in order to get Peter Madsen convicted.

And now for the sexual tastes – during the court hearings, there has been questions into the sexual tastes of Peter Madsen, asking if he is into BSDM. I understand the direction of the questions, but I find it problematic that it appears that they try to indicate that being into BSDM would lead a person to murder someone. This is hardly the case.

As wall as going to the court hearings, Peter Madsen is being evaluated psychologically. Unlike the US (or at least movie description of US courtrooms), an insanity plea won’t get you off the hook in Denmark. If you are considered insane, and thus a danger to society, you will be put into custody without a time limit. The only way to get out again, is to convince the judges and psychologists that you are no longer a threat to society.

In most countries, guilt has to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and this is also the case in Denmark. However, this can be done in many ways, as explained in this NY Times article:

“The prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of a crime, but there are no rules demanding certain types of evidence,” said Trine Baumbach, an associate professor of law at Copenhagen University. “It’s a very pragmatic legal system and the sum of the circumstantial evidence can be enough,” she said, noting a recent murder conviction in a case in which the victim’s body was never found.

Given the changing stories of Peter Madsen, his admitted behavior after the death of Kim Wall, and the state of Kim Wall’s corpse, I personally think that there is a high likelihood that Peter Madsen will be found guilty. But it is good that the police keep working on finding more evidence.

I will continue to blog on this story as it develops.