Exoneree Takes Center Stage at Wrongful Convictions Forum

By Purnell T. Cropper | March 23, 2012

By Ashley Gast ’12

Faculty, students and members from the community were invited to attend a panel discussion on eyewitness mis-identification and wrongful convictions Tuesday night in the Commons Great Room. The forum was led by Pennsylvania Innocence Project’s legal director Marissa Bluestine, who started off the program with a presentation on eyewitness mis-identification and its influence on wrongful convictions.

To date, there have been 289 DNA exonerations in the United States, including 17 exonerations of death row inmates. Eyewitness mis-identification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions, playing a role in more than 75 percent of these cases. In Pennsylvania, there have been 11 DNA exonerations, totaling 138 years of wrongful incarceration. Unfortunately, DNA testing is very expensive and usually takes an average of six to seven years to get. Very often post-conviction evidence cannot be found; and when it is, it’s not always allowed in court.

Vincent Moto, an exoneree from Philadelphia, Pa., was sentenced to 12-24 years for rape, involuntary sexual deviate intercourse, criminal conspiracy and robbery based on eyewitness testimony from the victim of the rape. Moto served 10.5 years for this crime until he was granted a new trial on November 13, 1995, based on DNA results that were conducted on the victim’s underwear. Moto spoke about his case Tuesday night, revealing the injustice that he suffered for 10.5 years. When asked how he remained calm in prison for so long without going crazy, he explained that he knew his day would come. He said he kept his spirit up and tried to remain strong and rid himself of the anger he was feeling. (Read more about Moto’s case at www.innocenceproject.org.)

After Moto spoke about his case, four more panelists joined the stage: Paul Hetznecker, Civil Rights Attorney; Allen Stewart, Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office; Barbara Nodine, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, Arcadia University; and Hon. Paul Tressler, Judge, Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas. The panelists answered questions from the audience and shared their varied opinions on wrongful convictions and eyewitness mis-identification.

John Noakes, Associate Provost for Academic Improvement and Interim Dean of Graduate Studies, enjoyed the event. “Marissa Bluestine is always good and compelling, and Vincent Moto, like most exonerees I have met, was compelling in an unexpectedly humble way. The panel discussion afterward was feisty, and it was good to have opposing points of view debated.”

Andrew Vose ’13 was enlightened by Moto’s decision to forgive the eyewitness that put him in prison. “I can’t imagine forgiving someone who played a role in such a life changing incident like spending 10.5 years in prison.”

Karen Russo ’12 felt as though the forum was a total eye opener. “I never realized how often people are wrongly convicted. It’s amazing how DNA can exonerate them and give them a free lifestyle again.”

Bluestine recommended that educating the public and raising awareness is an important part of stopping wrongful convictions.

For more information about the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, visit www.innocenceprojectpa.org and join the Act4Innocence in PA Campaign at www.act4innocence.com.

Photos by Jin Zhao ’13