Many people associate due process and rights of the accused with being soft on crime and coddling criminals.
The documentary After Innocence tells the stories of several completely innocent men falsely jailed for a variety of reasons and the organization, The Innocence Project, devoted to helping them. I recommend it, though it’s at times painful and may infuriate you. The movie won many awards, including a Special Jury Prize at Sundance.
At one point, a prosecutor in Florida argues to a judge to keep a man in jail despite overwhelming evidence of his innocence, against his earlier arguments. He presents himself as playing things safe, but he’s keeping the actual criminal at large, keeping the actual criminal safe. It’s hard not to wonder how this prosecutor isn’t breaching some principle of legal practice or even the law. The lawyer for the defendant questions his ethics.
Some of these men served over ten years in jail, sometimes years in solitary confinement. Some were arrested with no warning or way to prepare. Some had negligent representation. Some became targets of overzealous police and prosecutors. Some were on death row. They were innocent.
As of June 2014, 316 people previously convicted of serious crimes in the United States had been exonerated by DNA testing since 1989, 18 of whom had been sentenced to death. Almost all (99%) of the convictions proven to be false were of males, with minority groups also disproportionately represented (approximately 70%). The National Registry of Exonerations lists 1,383 convicted felons who were exonerated through DNA and non-DNA evidence. According to a study published in 2014, more than 4% of persons sentenced to death from 1973 to 2004 are probably innocent. The following are some examples of notable exonerations:
- In 2004, Darryl Hunt was exonerated after serving 19 and a half years in prison of a life sentence for the rape and murder of a newspaper copy editor, Deborah Sykes.
- In 2007, after an investigation begun by The Innocence Project, James Calvin Tillman was exonerated after serving 16.5 years in prison for a rape he did not commit. His sentence was 45 years.
- In 2007, Lynn DeJac’s 1994 conviction was reversed on the basis of DNA evidence. She had been convicted of murdering her daughter Crystallynn Girard on February 13, 1993. She was the first woman to be exonerated of murder on the basis of DNA evidence.
- In 2007, Floyd Brown was exonerated for the murder of an 80-year-old woman in Wadesboro, NC. Brown had served 14 years in Dorothea Dix Hospital and had the mental capacity of a 7-year-old. He had been convicted solely on the basis of a false confession by a State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) agent, who claimed that Brown had dictated the confession to him; however, Brown’s mental state precluded that possibility. Floyd sued the state of North Carolina following his release.
- In December 2009, James Bain was exonerated by DNA testing for a kidnapping, burglary, and rape he did not commit. Bain’s appeal had previously been denied four separate times. His 35-year imprisonment made him the longest-incarcerated victim of a wrongful conviction to be freed through DNA evidence.
- In June 2010, Barry Gibbs was awarded the largest civil rights settlement by the City of New York to date of $9.9 million. He received an additional $1.9 million settlement from New York state in late 2009. He was wrongly convicted of the 1986 murder of Brooklyn prostitute Virginia Robertson based on coerced testimony by a witness during the investigation by NYPD detective Louis Eppolito, who was later convicted for serving as a mob hit man on the side. Gibbs’s original sentence was 20 years to life, of which he served just under 19 years. Gibbs had been repeatedly denied parole because of his lack of admission of guilt. Gibbs was exonerated in 2006 with help from the Innocence Project.
- In September 2010, days before he was to be executed, Kevin Keith was granted clemency by Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, thanks in part to the Ohio Innocence Project.
- In February 2010, Greg Taylor was exonerated for the murder of a North Carolina prostitute after serving 17 years in prison. Taylor had been convicted without physical evidence, and the SBI failed to report all of their testing results during Taylor’s original trial. Taylor described his experience as “the perfect storm of bad luck.”
In the history of the United States (as of June, 2011) there have been 307 post-conviction exonerations due to DNA testing. According to the Innocence Project these statistics were found on those exonerated:
- The average sentence served thirteen years.
- 70 percent exonerated are a part of minority groups.
- 40 percent of these DNA cases were able to find the actual person who committed the crime.
- About 50 percent of those exonerated through DNA testing have been financially compensated for their time in prison. The federal government, 27 states, and Washington D.C. have passed laws providing some level of financial compensation to wrongfully convicted people.
- The Innocence Project has had to close 22 percent of its cases because DNA evidence was missing or had been destroyed.
I’ve been wondering why of all the movies and documentaries I watch, I’ve chosen to write about this one. The only other one that comes to mind is Murderball. I see two main reasons. The first is that though the movie and project focus on helping individuals, they are working on changing the system. We tend to think of our system as considering suspects as innocent until proven guilty, but we’ve moved away from that principle. We have a system that in many cases errs on presuming guilt.
The other reason is more personal. While I enjoy an educational background, network, and quality of life that I think protects me from being wrongfully accused and jailed, I expect these men did too. It’s hard not to feel it could be you, especially, given the numbers, as a man. Diseases and natural disasters that ruin people’s lives don’t trouble me as much as a system we created that includes people intentionally pursuing people.
The video is free on YouTube:
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