by Scott TurowÂ
Now and then when Iâ€™m asked to say what I think the law is for, meaning what use it actually is for humans, I answer that law is meant to make the little piece of existence that people can actually control more reasonable. The universe will continue to contain impulses to chaos and humanity will always be full of folly. But we dignify civilization with the hope that our communities will operate by standards that most of us regard as rational.
Which goes to explain why we are so peculiarly horrified by the notion of imprisoning the innocent, or even worse, condemning a guiltless person to death. Law cannot go any farther off the tracks. Our criminal justice system is supposed to err on the side of innocence, sifting the clearly guilty from those less-obviously culpable. In the same vein, the death penalty, whatever one thinks of it, is intended, even by its proponents, for the so-called â€œworst of the worstâ€â€”those cases where there is not the slightest ambiguity about the moral blameworthiness of the defendant. Imprisoningâ€”or condemningâ€”the innocent exposes a host of procedural defects in our criminal justice system: the manner in which confessions are obtained and the vulnerabilities that prompt some persons to confess falsely; the reliability of eyewitnesses; the way investigators sometimes predetermine who committed a crime; the occasional inadequacy of appointed counsel; the overreaching zeal of some prosecutors; and, of course, the pervasive and distorting effects of race. But these mistakes are also a sobering reminder to everybody who makes his life in and around the law about the very limits of the enterprise. Justice must be our eternal aspiration, but we should greet skeptically those who ever claim itâ€™s been fully achieved. Even if we were to do much, much better, we would still tragically miss the mark on occasion.
The accounts in this book are not works of lofty philosophy or jurisprudence. They are humble first-person tales, told in everyday terms, of how injustice happened, one blunder at a time. They are moving stories of living out that most Kafkaesque of nightmaresâ€”being imprisoned for something you did not do. There is a uniquely literary aspect to that cruel dilemma, because no one on earth knows better than the person wrongly imprisoned how unjust the situation is. Even devoted loved ones or dedicated lawyers can never have the same certainty as the defendant, who knows absolutely that he or she has done nothing wrong. As such, these accounts are in the end eyewitness testimonies to the epitome of human isolationâ€”wronged, separated from society and loved ones, and trapped in an existence defined by what you alone know without doubt to be a lie.Â
As bleak as that is, these are also redeeming stories. While it is impossible not to be overwhelmed by the injustices each of these people endured, their tales are also testimony to their resilience, and to the families and lawyers who often helped them escape the prison cell where they did not belong. Even the law managed to do better in the end. But each story is a reminder that freedom is not merely a matter of confinement, but also the chance to dwell with the truth.
At first glance, the group defied all stereotypes we might conjure of those who have served time behind bars, deservedly or not. The five men present were affable, good-humored, gentle even, dressed in sweaters and khakis and loafers. Beverly Monroe, the one woman in attendance, was the epitome of southern gentilityâ€”gracious, warm, and impeccably mannered. Among the six of them, they had served seventy years in prison for crimes they did not commit. In two instances, there had been no crime at all. That these people had served time for murder, for rape, for molestation, was almost incomprehensible.
In a living room in Berkeley, California, these six wrongfully convicted Americans sat, discussing their lives before, during, and after their incarcerations. They had been brought together under the auspices of the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, to begin telling the stories that comprise this book. On the coffee table before them lay the front section of that dayâ€™s San Francisco Chronicle, across which roared the word GUILTY! The headline referred to Scott Peterson, the man convicted, the previous day, of murdering his pregnant wife. In the weeks leading up to that verdict, the residents of the Bay Area had made clear, in countless television and newspaper man-on-the-street interviews, their desire to see Peterson sent to prison and, for a good portion of those who were sure of his guilt, executed. Now Petersonâ€™s guilt had been affirmed, and the public could rest assured that justice had been done. When the word GUILTY appears in four-inch-high letters across the daily newspaper, there can be no doubt about its veracity and finality.
John Stoll would disagree. In 1982, he was convicted of molesting dozens of children in Bakersfield, California; the case implicated a group of other adults, was wildly lurid in its details, and extremely public. The newspapers there and nationally reported that children had told stories of ritual abuse at Stollâ€™s house; that they had been photographed in sexual poses, given sleeping pills, and molested repeatedly. By the time both local and national media had broadcast the childrenâ€™s stories, it is difficult to imagine any citizen of the Bakersfield community believing that a man accused by so many childrenâ€”including his own sonâ€”of molestation, was in fact innocent. The carefully conducted work of the communityâ€™s law enforcement officers, social workers, prosecutors, jurors, and media would never, the public assumed, collectively convict the wrong personâ€”much less convict a man of a crime when there was no crime. But indeed they did convict an innocent man. John Stoll served nineteen years and was released in 2004, when his accusers, children now grown, recanted their testimony; they had all been coerced or confused into fabricating their stories.
Stoll was forty-two when he entered prison. He is now sixty-one. Male life expectancy in the United States is seventy-five. The American system of justice stole almost one third of his life, and now Stoll struggles to reconcile his body, which is that of an older man, and his mind, which often forgets that heâ€™s no longer forty. Stoll, like many exonerees, has to a certain extent set aside, or even blocked out, the time he served in prison. He wants his life to begin again where he left off, but heâ€™s now coming to grips with the fact that his body canâ€™t do the things it could before he was imprisoned. Even gardening is difficult. â€œMy body is telling me, â€˜What are you doing?â€™ Iâ€™m thinking Iâ€™m forty.â€
Next to Stoll sat Beverly Monroe, who was convicted of the murder of her lover, who in fact took his own life. Monroe, sixty-seven, is graceful and soft-spoken, with teardrop eyes that she directs with palpable warmth into the face of anyone sheâ€™s addressing. With a degree in organic chemistry and three grown childrenâ€”one a lawyer who helped overturn her convictionâ€”Monroe is difficult to picture as an inmate. Monroe was the victim of an overzealous investigator, who, after the coroner declared the death of her lover a suicide, was convinced Monroe was the killer. There was no evidence to corroborate this theory, and yet she was convicted. He fabricated a confession, and told Monroe, â€œI can make you out to be the black widow spider of all time.â€ After serving seven years for the murder, her conviction was overturned in 2002, by a U.S. federal district court. In his ruling, Judge Richard Williams labeled Monroeâ€™s case a â€œmonument to prosecutorial indiscretions and mishandling,â€ and called the state policeâ€™s interviews of Monroe â€œdeceitful and manipulative.â€
Monroe, and the rest of the exonerees represented in this book, demonstrate that wrongful conviction can and does happen to people from any background, from any socioeconomic group. A grandmother can be convicted of a murder when there is no evidence against her. A father can be convicted of molestation, based on nothing but the coached testimony of five-year-olds. In many cases, the victims of wrongful conviction are literally plucked off the street, and their lives are thereafter altered irreversibly. In the case of John Stoll, he was taken in the middle of the night. He was woken in the early hours, dragged to the police station in his pajamas, and did not see his home again for nineteen years.
That afternoon in Berkeley, champagne was opened for Peter Rose. He had been released from prison only a week before, and the rest of the exonerees knew exactly how he was feeling. They toasted himâ€”â€œTo freedom!â€ they saidâ€”and Rose tried to muster the appropriate words, but couldnâ€™t. He was still overcome, overwhelmed.
One day in 1994, while walking in town with his young son on his shoulders, Rose was stopped, handcuffed, and arrested for the rape of a thirteen-year-old girl. Rose served ten years for the crime, and was exonerated when DNA evidence proved his innocence. Rose, tall, trim and clean-cut, sat in a leather chair, joined the discussion when addressed directly, and otherwise sat quietly, shaking his head at it all. Rose, though affable and quick to laugh, was still adjusting to life outside. â€œWhen I went to San Francisco last night,â€ he said, â€œitâ€™s just so much traffic and so much things going so fast that my eyes was trying to pick up everything at the same time and it actually made me dizzy.â€ John Stoll nodded in recognition. Rose continued, â€œI got nauseated from it. I got dizzy, because I couldnâ€™t focus on what I was doing. Iâ€™m trying to look everywhere at the same time. My eyeballs were just going, â€˜Whoop!â€™â€
As the afternoon wore on, John Stollâ€”boisterous, loud, quick with a jokeâ€”led most discussions, and had a story to illustrate any subject matter, from prosecutorial misconduct to prison violence. Ulysses Charles was animated, exasperated, sitting on the edge of his seat, while Monroe was reserved, speaking only when the room had quieted down enough to hear her reed-thin voice. When the discussion turned to how the men had managed to survive in prison, Beverly Monroe was aghast. During her years incarcerated, she hadnâ€™t seen anything like the violence described by Rose, Ulysses Charles, and even Stoll, whose own actions were startling but by all accounts necessary to survival at San Quentin. When Stoll described walking across the prison yard to confront a potential enemy, Monroe took in a quick breath and held a hand to her mouth.
The seven graduate students present had volunteered for this class for many reasons, chief among them their astonishment that wrongful imprisonmentâ€”perhaps the most galling human rights abuse possible in the United Statesâ€”was still possible. Before this gathering, the students had read about these exonerees, had re-searched each of their cases, but to meet them was something else entirely. To know that these exonerees were not only sane and well-adjusted, but also willing to discuss their experiences at length, if only to reduce the likelihood that it would happen to someone else, was at once bewildering and profoundly inspiring.
But meeting these highly intelligent people begs the question: How could this happen? How can Americans, including those with no prior record, be convicted of crimes with which they had no involvement? In many cases, the first and gravest mistake the wrongfully convicted made was in trusting too much. Because they were innocent, they cooperated with investigators, not suspecting that the investigators were targeting them. Many of the victims waived their Miranda rights and agreed to hours or even days of interrogations, all in an effort to solve the crime. They trusted the police to act with integrity. They took investigators at their word. Even after they were charged, they reasoned their predicament would get straightened out in a fair trial. They trusted that the system worked.Â
Many Americans rightfully have a general sort of faith in the soundness of their system of justice. Not so those inside the system. Peter Neufeld worked as a criminal defense lawyer for fifteen years before he and Barry Scheck started the Innocence Project in New York City. â€œThose of us toiling in the trenches,â€ he says, â€œthe defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judge assume we get it right 99.9 percent of the time. But Iâ€™ve learned thatâ€™s not the case at all. The system is much more vulnerable to error.â€
The findings of a 1996 study, conducted by C. Ronald Huff of Ohio State University, confirms this. For the report, Huff and his researchers surveyed 188 judges, prosecuting attorneys, sheriffs, public defenders and police chiefs in Ohio, and forty-one state attorneys general. The survey asked respondentsâ€”of whom, it should be noted, only 9 percent were public defendersâ€”what percentage of U.S. convictions they estimated were in error. Over 70 percent of respondents estimated an error rate of anywhere from .1 percent to 1 percent. Huff thus estimated that if a conservative average of .5 percent of convictions were in error, that would indicate that for the year 1990, of the 1,993,880 convictions for index crimesâ€”murder, non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, aggravated assault, robbery, burglary, larceny theft, motor vehicle theft and arsonâ€”there were 9,969 wrongful convictions. A more recent study, by Ohio State Universityâ€™s Criminal Justice Research Center, concluded that police and courts are right 99.5 percent of the time. In 2005, there are currently 2.2 million men and women in United States prisons. If even .5 percent of them have been wrongfully convicted, this indicates that approximately 11,000 inno-cent people are currently be-hind bars in America.
The advent of DNA identification technology, first used to exonerate in 1989, has suggested that, at least for many serious crimes such as rape, the error rate has been significantly higher. In 2002, the FBI compared the DNA from 18,000 suspected rapists to the DNA from their alleged victimsâ€™ rape kits. In 5,000 of these cases, about 30 percent, the suspect did not match the perpetratorâ€™s DNA profile. Thus, almost one third of suspects were spared trial and therefore the risk of wrongful conviction. And, although some might have been acquitted even in the absence of DNA evidence, the eyewitness testimony that is usually at the core of the prosecutionâ€™s case has been shown to be among the most persuasive evidence when presented to juries. DNA evidence was not used widely until the mid-1990s; the -possibility therefore exists that one third of rape convictions before that time might have been in error.Â
Error in eyewitness identification is one in a handful of frequent causes of wrongful convictions. Many such cases involve the testimony of â€œsnitchesâ€â€”paid or otherwise compensated witnesses, often prisoners seeking to reduce their own sentences. Ineffective defense counsel, dubious science, prosecutorial misconduct, and forced confessions are the other factors commonly seen in wrongful conviction cases. Add to these factors the more passive, or systemic elements: poorly paid, overworked, and sometimes incompetent public defenders; juries picked for their willingness to convict; the indifference of the community and the media to the plight of indigent defendants, particularly non-white defendants. Itâ€™s a system assured of making mistakes.
Those who manage to prove their innocence are of an extraordinary breed. Displaced from all that is familiarâ€”home, family, identity, freedomâ€”the wrongfully convicted person sets about proving his innocence in the most adverse of conditions. They and those who have faith in themâ€”their families, friends, attorneys and innocence advocatesâ€”must be relentless, sometimes over the course of decades, in their quest to prove their innocence. The amount of time, determination, money, and faith that is required to reverse a wrongful conviction is so daunting that only the most stalwart and unwavering can hope to achieve it.Â
Some simply canâ€™t muster or maintain the strength; their anger is too great. Like most exonerees, Joseph Amrine, convicted of murder, first couldnâ€™t believe it was happening: â€œI didnâ€™t think there was gonna be a trial,â€ he says. Once in prison, and knowing that his situation was all too real, he had to come to grips with his conviction, and work toward his release. But first he had to find a place for his outrage. â€œI couldnâ€™t just sit here and be thinking about my caseâ€¦ and then thinking about these guards harassing me, and then think about this lawyer that I donâ€™t like, and then the jury, and all these different problems that I got, different things that are just bothering meâ€¦
I had to learn how to put stuff in different areas. Itâ€™s like, if I got my problems with family over here, and right now Iâ€™m dealing with the problem with my lawyer or my case, well then, my situation with my family donâ€™t even come into play. Itâ€™s locked in a box. And these are all in little boxes. Now, if all them boxes was to open up at one time, Iâ€™d probably lose my mind.â€
Of the exonerees represented in this book, almost half considered suicide at one time or another. After being convicted of murder, Juan Melendez could not bear the double burden of his imprisonment and the knowledge that society as a whole was not listening to his pleas to be heard. â€œThis is what the demons used to tell me all the time,â€ he says. â€œWhy you got to satisfy them? Why let them kill you when you can do it yourself? You supposed to be a real Puerto Rican man, a real macho man. Donâ€™t satisfy them. Do it yourself. You say you didnâ€™t do the crime, you think they gonna believe you? They gonna kill you anyway. Donâ€™t satisfy them. Satisfy yourself. Do it yourself.â€
Even if they can stay sane and focused, exonerees must first educate themselves about their own cases. As James Newsome, exonerated after twenty-two years in prison, puts it, â€œThe problem is, the wrongfully convicted person has the hardest time proving his innocence, because he doesnâ€™t know anything about his own case.â€ Proving innocence from inside prison is a backwater proposition, where there is little connection to the outside world, where the state has control over everythingâ€”the mail one sends out, the visitors received. And prison is now meant for suffering. The days when American prisons were interested in rehabilitation, in releasing prisoners back into society as improved, reformed individuals, are long gone.
While all defendants are entitled to an attorney to represent them at trial, only those sentenced to death are automatically provided an appellate attorney. This fact drives some to extraordinary measures. Joseph Amrine, knowing that his case would receive more attention and legal assistance if he were given the death -penalty, campaigned for it. â€œI tried my best to get the death penalty,â€ he says. â€œIâ€™d seen a lot of other guys there who had life and fifty years without paroleâ€”they didnâ€™t have no lawyers or nothing. So Iâ€™m thinking, rather than spend the rest of my life in prison, Iâ€™m gonna take my chances getting the death penalty for a murder I didnâ€™t commit. If nothing else, Iâ€™ll have a lawyer throughout my appeal.â€ In lieu of state-sponsored legal assistance, the wrongfully convicted try to cobble together their savings and those of their families, or represent themselves pro se. Many become experts in the law, and slog through the mired appellate process. All the while, they struggle with varied obstacles, from the storage of legal documents in their cells to the long, debilitating waits between motions, appeals, and decisions. Bright moments and developments in their cases come from the unlikeliest places. One man, convicted of multiple rapes, learned of the possibility of proving innocence with DNA on Oprah. Twenty-two years into his sentence, DNA results freed him.
When the wrongfully convicted are released, they might be initially exultant, but they enter a world very different than that which they left. They usually have no marketable skills, theyâ€™ve received little to no vocational training in prison, and in most cases, the exonerees are released with nothingâ€”no compensation, no apology, no ability to fend for themselves. In 2005, only nineteen states had laws providing compensation for the wrongfully convicted. Only a few exonerees have been successful in suing the counties where they were convicted.Â
More often, the exonerees become dependent on relatives, and some are simply too damaged to function successfully. Michael Evans and Paul Terry were convicted, at age seventeen, of the rape and murder of a young girl on the South Side of Chicago. They spent twenty-seven years in prison, before their release due to DNA evidence and the assistance of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University. Michael Evans is a talkative and optimistic man, now middle-aged, struggling to move forward after being incarcerated for more than half his life and the entirety of his adult life. Paul Terry, though, was left a shell of his former self. He has no aspirations for the future and is content to hold a set of keys to his sisterâ€™s house, where he lives.
The inevitable questions addressed to exonereesâ€”â€œAre you angry? Are you bitter?â€â€”are difficult for them to answer. Often asked on the very day they are released, the day the fortunes of the wrongfully convicted turn, they are joyful, optimistic, ready to begin their lives again. But this period of grace is often short-lived, as the realities of their post-prison quandary become clear. What seems to irk exonerees is that few seem to care about what happened to them, much less how it continues to happen to others. Apologies from states, courts, and officials involved in their conviction are a rarity, and there is no review process, whereby a police department, prosecutorâ€™s office, or court would reflect on its errors. Christopher Ochoa was convicted of a rape and murder and served twelve years for a crime that he didnâ€™t commit. â€œNobody, nobody,â€â€ˆhe says, â€œhas come out in public and said, â€˜We screwed up.â€™ Not the DA, not the cop, not anybody. Nobodyâ€™s even apologized to me.â€
Exonerees want something meaningful to grow from their horrific experience. But without recognizing and trying to correct the causes of wrongful convictions, without accountability for mistakes made at all levels, the decades these men and women spent in prison can seem to have been for nothing at all.
America has long played the role of watchdog for human rights abuses abroadâ€”China, Iraq, Palestine, Kosovo, South Africa, Argentinaâ€”in each instance condemning the perpetrators and insisting on change, sometimes tied to sanctions and public censure. We are not accustomed to bearing witness to victims of -systemic injustice at home; the lens is always pointed outward.Â
And yet wrongful conviction is a shocking and preventable injustice that affects countless numbers of Americans. This book gives voice to thirteen exonerated Americans. Their stories are told in plain language, and the issues raised by their narratives are elaborated upon in the appendices. We have attempted in this book to present stories that highlight different aspects of wrongful convictionâ€”witness misidentification, forced confession, the preservation of biological evidence, prosecutorial misconduct, and so on. Selected on that basis, it should be noted, the racial composition of the bookâ€™s exonerees does not precisely match that of the wrongfully convicted at large; the incidence of wrongful conviction is considerably higher among African-Americans than any other minority.Â
Those unfamiliar with the phenomena of wrongful conviction very often assume that the wrongfully convicted person had something to do with the crime. One of the students in the UC Berkeley graduate class, when asked about her preconceptions about exoner-ees, said that she imagined that most were â€œAfrican-American, poor, involved in some criminal activity,â€ and that â€œthey were known by the cops, and saddled with some crime that they -couldnâ€™t solve otherwise.â€ Even the wife of exoneree Kevin Green, many years after his exoneration, still believes that â€œthe police donâ€™t just pick you off the street.â€Â
But in the narratives of Surviving Justice, it becomes clear that wrongful conviction can and does happen to virtually anyone. Until stories like these are widely known and from them lessons learned, it will continue to happen to anyone.Â