Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A Matter of Life or Death

A Matter of Life or Death

Sometimes a criminal defense investigation is literally a matter of life or death. According to the National Institute of Justice, 5-10% of the US prison population is factually innocent of the crimes in which they have been convicted. That translates to over 200,000 innocent people that are in prison today and many sitting on death row. Of those innocent people 90% plead guilty.

The Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing, has exonerated 212 people to date. There have been 23 cases in New York State alone.

On November 2, 2006, after serving 15.5 years of a 15-Life sentence Jeff Deskovic's indictment charging him with murder, rape, and possession of a weapon was dismissed on the grounds of actual innocence. Post-conviction DNA testing both proved Deskovic's innocence and identified the real perpetrator of a 1989 murder and rape. A number of factors lead to the wrongful conviction of Deskovic including government misconduct and a coerced confession. DNA testing was conducted before trial. The results showed that Deskovic was not the source of semen in the rape kit. Deskovic had been told before the alleged confession that if his DNA did not match the semen in the rape kit, he would be cleared as a suspect. Instead, prosecution continued on the strength of his alleged confession. (as told on the Innocence Project website)

A handful of factors seem to play the most prominent role in wrongful convictions with mistaken identifications being the lead contributing factor. Mistaken eyewitness identifications contributed to over 75% of the more than 212 wrongful convictions in the United States overturned by post-conviction DNA evidence. Inaccurate eyewitness identifications can confound investigations from the earliest stages. Critical time is lost while police are distracted from the real perpetrator, focusing instead on building the case against an innocent person. Law enforcement all over the country has been found to engage in the following actions that have contributed directly to wrongful convictions: tunnel vision—making a snap decision about who the guilty part is and investigating with bias towards that individual to the exclusion of all others even in the face of hard evidence; the use of trickery and deceit to manipulate or coerce a confession; scouring jails for snitches willing to frame suspects; evidence tampering and even witness intimidation.

Other factors that have contributed to wrongful convictions include: unreliable or limited science at the time of the crime, forensic science misconduct, misuse of informants and prosecutorial misconduct. The use of professional investigators in the criminal defense investigation process significantly impacts the outcome of a criminal case. Many large law offices have in-house investigators, but unfortunately, defendants can not pay the high costs involved with retaining large firms, leaving them with “the best attorney they could afford.” Smaller firms rarely use investigators, leaving a critical part in the chain of justice broken.
The National Legal Aid Defenders Association recommends an investigation be conducted in every case, even those where a guilty plea has been entered. This can significantly decrease the odds of wrongful convictions and bring to light many of the mitigating factors that lead to wrongful convictions prior to the damage being done.

Friday, February 1, 2008

The Many Faces of Insurance Fraud

The Many Faces of Insurance Fraud
Examples from the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud

Staged Auto Accidents. Juan and Maria Lopez and their 2-year-old daughter Joanna were burned alive during an auto accident two men staged on the Long Beach (Calif.) freeway to collect insurance money in 1997. The scammers suddenly stopped in front of a tractor-trailer the Lopezes were following. A gravel truck then rammed the Lopezes from behind, killing the young family instantly. Isidorio Medina Gomez and Esteban Galves Solano each received 11 years in state prison in 1998.

Arson. Helen Tidwell hired two local teenagers to torch her Tampa restaurant, Gram's Country Kitchen, so she could collect insurance money in 1996. But fumes from the gasoline the boys poured in the restaurant accidentally ignited, causing an explosion. One boy died and the other was permanently scarred. Tidwell received 30 years in prison in 1999.

Health Insurance Fraud (corporate). Columbia/HCA Healthcare has agreed to pay at least $754 million after over billing taxpayer-funded Medicare for years. If the deal stands, it will be the largest healthcare fraud settlement in U.S. history. The chain (now named HCA) billed Medicare for unneeded lab tests, improper diagnoses to make patients seem sicker than they were, and disguising un-reimbursable expenses as reimbursable. Criminal charges still are pending.

Health Insurance Fraud (individual). Massachusetts orthopedic surgeon Harold Goodman routinely gave patients potentially harmful X-rays and steroid injections they didn't need so he could falsely bill Medicaid. Goodman spent as few as five minutes with each patient, giving one patient 74 X-rays and 112 steroid injections in less than three years. Goodman received six months in prison in 2000.

Faked Death. Bonnie McCaslin bought 78 life insurance policies on her ex-husband Timothy, who knew nothing about the policies. She then tried to collect $11 million from dozens of life insurance companies by claiming he died in an earthquake in Mexico in 1995. McCaslin received two years in jail in Nebraska, but blames Timothy for not cooperating with her ruse. "He's such a jerk. If it weren't for him, I wouldn't be in here," she told Forbes magazine.

Murder for Insurance. Dina Abdelhaq suffocated her seven-week-old daughter Tara to collect $200,000 in life insurance money to feed her gambling addiction in 1995. Jobless and on welfare, the Illinois resident was deeply in debt from riverboat gambling. Tara died in her crib just two weeks after Abdelhaq took out a life policy on the child. Abdelhaq received 21 years in prison for insurance fraud in 2000.

Insurer Fraud. Thousands of investors, many of them retirees left almost penniless, were financially devastated when National Heritage Life Insurance Co. collapsed in 1995 after being looted of $450 million by company insiders. The insiders lived lavish lifestyles while retirees who invested in the company lost their entire life savings. Four major players were convicted in 1999, and dozens more are charged in America's largest insurer insolvency caused by fraud.

Property Insurance. California software distributor Irwin Bransky had a lot of useless merchandise on his hands. So when the Northridge earthquake struck California in 1994, Bransky ordered employees to jump on the software packages and bend them with their hands to inflate an insurance claim. Bransky filed a $5-million claim, and the insurer paid $840,000 before an employee blew the whistle. Bransky received 51 months in prison in 1998.

Protect Yourself from Staged Auto Accidents

Protect Yourself from Staged Auto Accidents
Information provided by the National Insurance Crime Bureau

"Automobile accident fraud is among the country's most widespread and lucrative fraud crimes, and the Insurance Research Council estimates 24 percent of bodily injury claims resulting from vehicle crashes are fraudulent." From start to finish the entire scene is staged; a staged crash with criminal drivers, paid witnesses near the crash site offering false statements, unethical attorneys representing the criminal drivers, medical providers inflating costs and conjuring up nonexistent injuries and criminals causing self-inflicted injuries prior to the crash. It can all seem real to the unsuspecting victim but it's far from accurate or accidental.

There are steps you can take to decrease your odds of becoming a victim of this crime:

Avoid tailgating and leave plenty of distance between your vehicle and another in case that car suddenly stops
Call the police to an accident scene and obtain a police report with the officer's name, even if the damage is minimal
Carry a disposable camera in your car for documentation of the number of passengers and damage at the accident scene
Avoid people who suddenly appear at an accident scene and try to direct you to unethical attorneys or medical providers
Be wary of physicians who insist you file a personal injury claim after an accident, especially if you have not been hurt.

Visit www.ncib.org to learn more about the 4 type of staged accidents and how to protect yourself from becoming a victim. Call 1-800-TEL-NCIB if you suspect insurance fraud or vehicle theft.

How much is Insurance Fraud Costing You?

How much is Insurance Fraud Costing You?

The answer: $80 billion a year or nearly $950 for each family as projected by the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud. Honest consumers and businesses continue to pay a heavy price for a crime that continues to happen everyday. While money out of pocket is certainly a substantial loss, insurance fraud affects your bottom line in other ways and sometimes with deadly consequences.

Insurance fraud inflates the cost of everything we buy and use due to the higher premiums for health and commercial insurance that are passed onto the consumer. Premiums for auto and homeowners insurance also stay high because insurance companies pass on the larger costs of insurance fraud to policyholders. Businesses lose millions in income annually because fraud increases their costs for employee health coverage and business insurance. People can lose jobs and health coverage when insurance companies go bankrupt due to fraud.

The elderly especially are often at risk for insurance schemes that sell nonexistent health policies or perform poor medical care to illegally inflate health insurance claims. Seniors spend life savings and never receive the medical care they need. Lives are put at risk with staged auto accidents and arson. People sometimes even whole families die because of these deadly acts. Murder is committed and even pets can lose their lives so life insurance money can be collected.

At the end of the day, fraud is everybody's problem but many consumers believe insurance fraud is justified. Tolerance only allows for this crime to continue. According to the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, "Two of three Americans tolerate insurance fraud to varying degrees; two of five Americans want little or no punishment for insurance cheats; they blame the insurance industry for its fraud problems because they believe insurers are unfair." New York State Alliance Against Insurance Fraud recently took a poll to evaluate New Yorkers attitudes towards insurance fraud and their willingness to commit fraudulent acts. For results of this poll click here.

To do your part to combat this problem; remain honest about your insurance claims and report those you know that are not. Contact the New York State Fraud Bureau to report at 1-888-372-8369. or call the toll-free hotline of the National Insurance Crime Bureau 1-800-835-6422