Innocence Program: Recent Developments by Topic Area
DNA cases & Chapter 278A. The most significant recent development in Massachusetts DNA-based innocence litigation is the 2012 passage of General Laws Chapter 278A. This important law marks this state’s first stand-alone law guaranteeing access to evidence for forensic or scientific analysis that may yield evidence of innocence. The SJC has addressed the scope of this law in two important cases, Commonwealth v. Wade, 467 Mass. 496 (2014). and Commonwealth v. Donald, 468 Mass. 37 (2014). In this article in the Massachusetts School of Law journal The Reformer, Innocence Program staff discuss the implications of these cases.
Flawed forensics. In the wake of the 2009 National Research Council Report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward, there have been a number of important cases in Massachusetts considering the reliability and permissible scope of expert testimony in the forensic fields identified and criticized by that report:
- Arson. United States v. Hebshie, 754 F.Supp.2d 89 (D. Mass. 2010).
- Compositional bullet lead analysis. Commonwealth v. Lykus, 451 Mass. 310 (2008).
- False Confession evidence. Commonwealth v. Hoose, 467 Mass. 395 (2014).
- Fingerprint identification. Commonwealth v. Gambora, 457 Mass. 714 (2010).
- Hair microscopy identification.
- Tool mark identification. Commonwealth v. Heang, 458 Mass. 857 (2011).
- Opinion as to cause of death, including but not limited to “Shaken Baby Syndrome” or “Abusive Head Trauma.”
- Opinion as to time of death.
Attorneys may apply for funding from the CPCS Innocence Program by submitting an IP Funds Reuqest form – contact out office to receive a form or for more information. Funding for expert assistance to evaluate and present claims involving the admission of flawed forensic evidence is available on a limited, case-by-case basis.
Identification cases. As the recently published NAS Report – Identifying the Culprit-Assessing Eyewitness Identification states, “[e]yewitness identifications play an important role in the investigation and prosecution of crimes, but they have also led to erroneous convictions.” Studies of DNA exonerations reveal that erroneous eyewitness identification testimony was a contributing factor in 75% of wrongful convictions. The scientific community has now reached consensus on a number of factors affecting the reliability of eyewitness memory and identification, as recognized most recently in Massachusetts by the SJC Study Group Report on Eyewitness Evidence. In four cases now pending in the SJC — Collins, Crayton, Gomes and Johnson — the Court has taken up several related challenges to the admission of identification evidence.
The CPCS Innocence Program is supported by Grants No. 2009-FA-BX-0037, 2013-DY-BX-K006, and 2014-DY-BX-K003 awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the Office of Justice Program, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the SMART Office, and the Office for Victims of Crime. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author and do not represent the official position or policies of the United States Department of Justice.