Robert Wilcoxson didn't say much to the police while the murder of Walter Bowman was being investigated. He had nothing to do with the murder, so he didn't know how to answer many of the questions he was asked. But he still wound up pleading guilty to second degree murder.
It was a life or death decision.
“I want to tell you I’m sorry for everything that happened,” Wilcoxson explained to Bowman's family at his sentencing hearing in 2002, according to a document from the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, an independent state agency that investigates claims of innocence post-conviction. “There’s really nothing I can say but apologize and ask mercy from you and the judge.”
In a deposition by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission in 2011, Wilcoxson explained that he originally wanted to tell Bowman's family that he wasn't to blame. But he didn't. He had a daughter on the way, and his lawyer advised him to plead guilty if he ever wanted to see her. If he didn’t take the plea, he could have been sentenced to life–or worse, to death. For the plea to work, Wilcoxson needed to seem guilty, even if he wasn't.
The decision Wilcoxson faced is all too common in America's criminal justice system. An untold number of people are pressured to plead guilty by the prosecution, their lawyers, or a system they have no trust in.
The Innocence Project has launched a new initiative to highlight this injustice. It's called the Guilty Plea Problem.
The group estimates that among the 2,000 known exonerations since 1989 documented by the National Registry of Exonerations, at least 345 people have been exonerated after pleading guilty to crimes they didn't commit. Wilcoxson was one of them.
Sixty-six percent of people who pleaded guilty to crimes they didn’t commit were people of color, the Guilty Plea Problem reports. The National Registry of Exonerations lists over 160 cases where a black suspect pleaded guilty, but was later exonerated. In a phone interview, I asked Wilcoxson if he thinks his race played a role in his case.
“We wouldn't even have [a] problem. We would've had a little help,” he told me. “They would've listened a little bit, and they would've kinda investigated a little bit more.”
When Walter Bowman was shot and killed by three men in 2000, Wilcoxson was 21 years old and, as he described it to me, “hustling on the streets.”
But to this day, Wilcoxson says he doesn’t know exactly how he came to be a suspect.
Looking through official court documents, depositions, and transcripts collected by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, it seems that some of the accused men knew Wilcoxson from around town and, for whatever reason, began implicating him. He wasn't the only one. At one point or another, nine different men were suspects.
As Wilcoxson explained it to me, while he maintained his innocence and tried to avoid making incriminating statements, the other accused men cooperated with authorities and took bargains to shorten their sentences. Eventually, he stood virtually alone, with a stack of testimony against him and his lawyer, Jack Stewart, urging him to take a deal.
"I was stuck between a rock and a hard place," Wilcoxson told me. "There were no options."
Wilcoxson thought of his daughter and, on Aug. 15, 2002, pleaded guilty to second degree murder. He was sentenced to up to 189 months–almost 16 years–in jail.
He never stopped hoping that he could prove his innocence, however.
In 2008, one of his co-defendants, Kenneth Kagonyera, submitted his own claim of factual innocence to the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission. Eventually, in 2010–eight years after he was convicted–Wilcoxson did the same.
When the commission reviewed the case, it noticed something disturbing. Someone else had already confessed to committing the crime in 2003, after Wilcoxson was already behind bars. The confession was given to the office of District Attorney Ron Moore. DNA testing performed on the physical evidence also excluded some of the men, including Wilcoxson. But Moore never shared this evidence with any of the defendants' lawyers. (Moore claimed that he never saw the evidence, though, as the Associated Press reported, records show otherwise.)
A rule is currently being considered in North Carolina that would require prosecutors to turn over any "new, credible and material evidence" that could prove that someone who was convicted and serving time is actually innocent. This would have changed everything in Wilcoxson's case–but the rule hadn't been adopted yet in North Carolina when he was sentenced. Since then, it has been approved by the North Carolina State Bar, and is awaiting the approval of the North Carolina Supreme Court, Duke law professor and co-director of the university's Wrongful Convictions Clinic James E. Coleman, Jr. explained in an email.
The rule is recommended by the American Bar Association. As of last year, 13 states had adopted the rule, the AP reported.
"It's your professional duty to correct a wrong when you've got the power to do it," Wilcoxson told the AP last year. "Your standard has got to be higher than the average person."
Wilcoxson had been in jail for nine years when, on Sep. 22, 2011, a panel of three judges unanimously ruled that he and Kagonyera were innocent “by clear and convincing evidence"–including testimony, the DNA evidence, the 2003 confession, and security video from a nearby store.
"I can't explain the feeling that I felt when I was vindicated," he told me. "When I was able to touch my mother outside of a guard making sure she ain't putting nothing in my pocket and me trying to get nothing from her. I could kiss my lady and they ain't talking about opening my mouth afterwards."
Now, life couldn't be more different for Wilcoxson. He's 37 years old and has been out of prison for five years. He works in real estate. He has a son who just turned three. He filed a civil rights lawsuit and received a $5.1 million settlement from Buncombe County, NC.
“You know what they did? They ended up making a way for my son to be the one that got away, because now he ain't got to worry about nothing,” Wilcoxson said. “He ain't got to get out on the streets. He ain't got to hustle. He ain't got to do what I did.”