Wrongful convictions point to bad policing, and racism

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Justice is never done when a wrongfully convicted prisoner is released and exonerated.

The injustice of the original wrongful conviction may be undone, and the innocent person might rightly receive damages worth millions of dollars. But no sum of money, no number of official apologies, can add up to the deliverance of justice when an individual has been held behind bars for a crime he or she did not commit. Settlements may be reached, but the matter can't be settled.

No more clearly do we see this than in the case of 52-year-old Kirk Odom, imprisoned for 22 years for a 1981 rape and robbery that he did not commit. A D.C. superior court ruled last month that the government pay Odom a record $9.2 million — approximately $1,000 for every day he wrongly served in prison. He was exonerated of the crime in 2012 after new DNA evidence proved his innocence. In prison, Odom was the victim of numerous prison rapes, and he contracted HIV as a result. Maintaining his innocence, he suffered from a psychotic break and attempted suicide more than once. The cost of such suffering is incalculable; $9.2 million is the least he deserves.


Since the first DNA-based exoneration in 1989, cases like Odom's have become less and less rare. Three hundred and twenty-five individuals have been exonerated with DNA evidence, serving an average of 14 years each, The Innocence Project reportedOn Monday, an Illinois prosecutor went to court to exonerate Angel Gonzalez, who has served 20 years of a 55-year sentence for a rape and kidnapping he didn't commit — he was also been recently proved innocent by DNA evidence. Gonzalez's 20 years can be added to the tally of 5,192 years that exonerated individuals have collectively spent behind bars for wrongful convictions. Vocativ rightly called these years "stolen." (Although I would argue that time in a cage is time stolen from any person, even those correctly found guilty.)

Although a judge agreed to exonerate Gonzalez on Monday, he may still yet serve more prison time. While in solitary confinement he allegedly destroyed a sink, for which he received a three year prison sentence for criminal damage to state property. It will be nothing short of a disgrace if Gonzalez must serve this time for a charge accrued while in isolation during a prison sentence he should never have been serving.

While the importance of reviewing DNA evidence cannot be understated, exonerations do not only point to a historic absence of good evidence: A systematic reliance on bad evidence produces wrongful convictions. The Innocence Project, reviewing exoneration cases, found that in 72 percent of them, testimony based on eyewitness accounts contributed to the conviction. Even the testimony of victims needs to come under scrutiny. For example, the victim Gonzalez was accused of having raped identified him as the perpetrator. The prosecutor, State's Attorney Mike Nerheim, said she remains devastated at the thought of his exoneration, even though reviews of her testimony show crucial inconsistencies and the recently reviewed DNA evidence proves Gonzalez's innocence.

The key here, as ever, is not to blame the victim. Point the finger instead at a process and system that is all too ready to condemn a person to decades in a cage based on weak evidence. Race is often a factor when eye witness testimony has proven faulty. In cases of a witness identifying a suspect of a different race, this need not necessarily be an overt or hate-filled racism on the part of witnesses, but a subtle tendency, revealed as patterns emerge. First, the inscription of guilt onto black skin in this country can't be ignored — the US justice system jails black men indiscriminately. Two hundred of the 325 exonerated have been African American.


The Innocence Project points out that studies show that people are less able to recognize faces of a different race than their own. But this may have more to do with socio-historic reasons — the tendency of racial segregation and for racial minorities to be criminalized — than any inherent human differences regarding interracial interactions. Regardless of cause, though, the ability of a witness reliably identifying a suspect of a different race is severely compromised. Yet the use of DNA forensic evidence has not undone the heavy reliance on eyewitness testimony. The proliferation of DNA exonerations should be used as grounds to challenge racist skews in the justice system, not to dismiss them as less potent.

The number of wrongful convictions that have been based on actual confessions from the suspects themselves also raise serious questions about police interrogations. Gonzalez confessed to participating in the 1994 assault. He had been in custody for over 13 hours after he did so. He swiftly recanted and asserted his innocence. Recall, too, the racism-drenched conviction of the Central Park 5, five black and hispanic men, who while teens aged between 14 and 16, were coerced into confessing and were then imprisoned for the brutal rape of a female jogger in Central Park in 1989. When DNA evidence revealed the attacker to have in fact been a single serial rapist, the men we freed in 2002. Only last year did they settle with New York City to receive $40 million in damages.


Sixty-four percent of wrongful homicide convictions — the ones that have been exonerated, that is — were made based on false confessions. That's 62 out of 104 individuals confessing to killing another person when they were guilty of no such thing. Such statistics cast distrust on police interrogations in their entirety, when false confessions have been extracted again and again over nothing less than life and death.

Existing exoneration cases in no way account for the number of wrongful convictions. The Innocence Project has been involved in 175 of the 325 DNA-based exonerations that there have been. That's one organization involved in over half the cases. If more groups were committed to investigating wrongful convictions, one can only imagine the many thousands more hours we could show the prison system to have stolen from innocent people.

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