He is an unlikely watchdog over the criminal justice system, a 64-year-old former aerospace engineer from Southern California with no formal legal training. Yet his blog, The Skeptical Juror, has rapidly become must-reading for journalists, lawyers and lay persons interested in wrongful conviction cases that otherwise might escape attention.
Meet the man behind the blog, J. Bennett Allen, who stopped an injustice in its tracks as a juror in a 2007 child molestation trial. Allen, the foreperson, came to believe the defendant was innocent. The 11 other jurors thought otherwise. Using his training as an engineer, Allen skeptically questioned each piece of evidence until -- in a scene that reprised Henry Fonda's 12 Angry Men -- he converted all but two of the jurors. The judge declared a mistrial, the defendant was eventually freed and Allen morphed from a skeptical juror to The Skeptical Juror.
"It was eye-opening to see how easily an innocent man could have been convicted," Allen recently told me. The experience compelled him to begin scrutinizing court records in other cases, and his blog was born. Altogether, Allen has deconstructed the evidence in 97 criminal cases and written four books about wrongful convictions, including The Skeptical Juror and the Trial of Cameron Todd Willingham -- about a Texas man who was executed for a crime he likely did not commit.
Now he is faced with his "most daunting" case, one that involves another Texas death row prisoner. And he worries that his scientific assessment of the condemned man's innocence will fall on deaf ears.
Allen has cause for concern. The clock is ticking for Preston Hughes, 46, who won't turn 47 this Christmas Eve if Texas lawmen have their way. Hughes is scheduled for execution on Nov. 15 for the 1988 stabbing deaths of a teenage girl and her 3-year-old cousin in west Houston.
Allen acknowledges that the case against Hughes seems, at first blush, to be "insurmountable." He confessed his guilt not once, but twice. As troubling, the teenager uttered Hughes' name before she died, the authorities said. Physical evidence? A knife said to be the murder weapon was found in Hughes' apartment, not far from the crime scene, and there was evidence of blood on his clothing. And what were the teen's eyeglasses doing on Hughes' couch, discovered during a police search?
But Hughes has steadfastly professed his innocence since his arrest, and Allen decided to revisit the evidence, as he had as a juror. "I was curious," he said, "and a bit suspicious" because of irregularities by Houston's crime lab in previous cases. The more Allen looked, the more skeptical he became.
After poring over documents and interviewing experts, Allen became convinced that Hughes had been wrongfully convicted. Since March, he has posted 49 blogs that reveal the following:
- The confessions. Allen discovered that the confessions were not only mutually inconsistent, but both were fundamentally at odds with the crime scene evidence. For example, Hughes confessed to wildly stabbing the victims, but in fact each was killed with two precisely inflicted wounds. The confessions were taken in the middle of the night and not videotaped.
- The dying declaration. Reviewing the autopsy report of the teen's body, Allen noticed that her carotid artery and jugular vein had been severed. Consulting the scientific literature and a noted pathologist, he learned that the victim would have lost brain function within 90 seconds -- at most. Since the first cop did not arrive at the scene for at least 15 minutes, the victim could not possibly have identified Preston Hughes, or anyone else, as her assailant.
- The murder weapon. Using 3-D and 2-D models, and the forensic evidence, Allen determined that the neck wounds on both victims were made with a double-edged blade approximately 5/8 inches wide. But Hughes' knife has a single-edge blade approximately 1 inch wide. Allen concluded that it was "impossible" for Hughes' knife to have been the murder weapon. As for the blood on the knife, the Houston crime lab was unable to link it to either victim.
- The bloodied clothing. Reading the trial testimony revealed to Allen that no blood was actually found on Hughes' clothing. A crime lab official may have misled the jury into believing that a positive preliminary test for blood was proof of its presence. In fact, follow-up tests did not determine that spots on the clothing were human blood.
- The eyeglasses. The authorities claimed that the teen victim's glasses were found on Hughes' couch during a search, but Allen checked the initial inventory of items taken from the apartment and noticed that the glasses were not listed. Suspiciously, they later appeared in a photograph of the couch. In his latest post about the case, he opined that the glasses were most likely planted by police.
And, the kicker: Allen has identified an alternative suspect, a man who lived in walking distance from the crime scene, knew the victims and vanished from the Houston area the day after the murders. Police never investigated this man, who is now serving life in a Texas prison for a violent crime spree in 1991.
In light of Allen's digging, will Hughes be freed? It's unlikely. Although 12 condemned prisoners in Texas have been exonerated in recent years -- the third highest number of death row exonerations of any state -- Hughes is facing an uphill battle.
The biggest obstacle: He is black and poor and does not have a legal team that is pushing for a new trial based on factual innocence. Just as a court-appointed lawyer failed to spot the holes in Texas' case at the time of Hughes' trial, another court-appointed lawyer has similarly let him down in what could be the final three months of his life.
It is inspiring that J. Bennett Allen has relentlessly challenged Texas' version of the evidence. But it is equally dismaying that this scientist-turned-blogger might be a condemned man's last hope.