Sometimes the more you know about wrongful convictions in the United States and around the world, the more helpless you feel. And it is true: wrongful convictions are a tough thing to swallow, no matter how you slice or dice it.
However there are some real, tangible things that we all can do to take action, make a difference, and replace feelings of helplessness with feelings of hope – the kind of things that, as the men of TESTED show, can accomplish the impossible.
Here are just some ways that you can help:
1. Connect with a local innocence project organization. Go to www.innocencenetwork.org for more information.
2. Learn about the laws in your state and what can be done to improve them.
3. Contact your local media groups and encourage them to write about this subject.
4. Know where your elected officials stand on the issue of DNA retention and let them know where you stand, too.
5. Get your friends and family involved. Let them know what you have learned and help them to start taking action with you.
What first inspired us about the men in TESTED was how, despite major injustices, they were able to suffer through, overcome and eventually create joy in place of anger and hope in place of despair.
The same goes for Dewey Bozella. After spending 26 years in prison for a wrongful murder conviction, Dewey finally got the chance to fulfill his lifelong dream, to box, and he made the most of it this past weekend.
The match seemed impossible: a 52 year old Bozella versus a 30 year old Larry Hopkins, in the prime of his career. But, as TESTED has shown as, the spirit of fighting and never giving up is unbeatable, even when faced with the starkest of odds.
Bozella says, “I used to lay in my cell and dream about this happening… It was my dream come true.” So, how did he do it? Well, for one, he held onto his hope and looked forward to the day when he could fulfill doing what he believed in. And when that wasn’t enough? As Bozella says, “I learned to take myself from the bad position and make it a better position, because if I hold onto it I’m just going to burn with hatred.”
That’s something we can all learn from.
Reading TESTED can be at times inspiring, trying, educational, enlightening and eye-opening and in the blogs we have tried to expand our awareness of some of the issues that surround wrongful convictions as well as the methods that these 12 innocent men used to overcome the difficult times and transform their lives. But there has been one area that can still use some expanding: prejudice. Why does it exist, how does it continue and how can we make prejudice stop? That is an important topic that we should all take with us and try to digest, to do our part, to change.
Many wrongful convictions involve some form of prejudice whether it be in the form of race, wealth, age, prior convictions, education, or disability – and, in the pages of TESTED, the topic of prejudices takes a running start in the story of Johnnie Lindsey.
Growing up, Johnnie was a good boy who had been dealt a tough set of cards. His father passed away when he was ten years old, leaving his mother heartbroken and unable to care for the children. To help out his family Johnnie would mow lawns every summer in order to pay for school supplies for himself and his sister. He joined the church choir and in high school he became a track star and won a scholarship to attend college at the nearby SMU. But then it seemed like life just got to him and he started to hang out with the wrong crowd. Soon enough he started drinking too much, dropped out of school and got attached to an even worse crowd. Eventually he got off the “right” track completely and served three years in prison for robbery. But when he got out he promised himself that he wouldn’t go down that path again…
But then false eyewitness testimony put Johnnie back behind bars, this time for the two rape attacks – even though he had pay stubs and time cards showing he had been at work. It seems like the previous conviction was just “enough” proof for even his court-appointed attorney to tell him, matter of fact, “You’re an ex-con, and you are going back to prison” (TESTED, page 5).
But as it turned out, Johnnie was innocent the second time around; he really was a changed man, and eventually he was exonerated. The thing is, Johnnie was innocent all along and if it weren’t for the personal prejudices of ex-convicts that the police and judicial system brought to his case, Johnnie’s innocence would have been realized from the start.
Why do you think prejudices like these happen? How do you think we can overcome this as a society to uncover the real truth?
Troy Davis should not have been executed yesterday, September 22nd, in fact he shouldn’t have been executed, period.
We believe that when matters of life and death are at hand, it matters, to the highest extent possible, not whether innocence can be proved beyond a measure of a doubt but whether guilt can be proved beyond a measure of doubt. Troy Davis’ guilt could not be proved 100% and so, he should not have been executed.
Without DNA evidence, without a lie detection, with nothing to rely on besides ever-faulty eye witness identification, why was Davis executed? Even more, when 7 out of the 9 eyewitnesses recanted and one of the witnesses could have very well been the actual perpetrator, why was Davis executed?
We think it must come down to the morals of this country and what we really think is
right versus wrong and what we value. Yesterday the Supreme Court showed that they value toughness and decisiveness over truth and even over the individual man named Troy who very well could have been innocent.
We grieve for Troy’s loss and also for the state of the judicial system where tough overpowers truth and justice.
As a country we think it is time to take a stand. Let’s no longer support politicians with their misplaced agendas and let’s continue the fight for real justice, real truth, real innocent men and women being allowed to live lives of freedom. Let us not forget what Troy taught us: innocence needs to be fought for, each and every day.
In 1953 Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson famously stated in a 1953 habeas ruling that, “He who must search a haystack for a needle is likely to end up with an attitude that the needle is not worth the search.”
(This is important because Habeas corpus (Latin: “you may have the body”) is the legal wording for the action through which a prisoner can be released from unlawful detention.)
Sadly, not much has changed: we have an overburdened system and overburdened judges who have become less motivated to find the truly innocent within the habeas claims.
As Nancy J. King, a top habeas scholar at Vanderbilt University argues, our habeas system that was designed to give wronged prisoners the opportunity for relief, has become largely abused. She suggests that habeas rulings should be limited to state prisoners who have claims of actual innocent, not procedural missteps, in order to lessen the burden.
Do you think this makes sense? Perhaps the need for more judges to handle the many cases is also in order?
How do you think we can take years of professional biases and individual abuses of the system and turn them into the judicial system we intended wherein the guilty are convicted and the innocent freed?
The first 250 wrongful conviction exonerations in the United States taught us a great deal. Most obviously, they taught us (or perhaps just reminded us) that nothing in this world matters as much as pure time: the time to freely live. The men from TESTED taught us this repeatedly as they reminded us that their only source of unhappiness is that loss of time – the memories that will never be created and the time that will never be regained. Second, the exonerations taught us that we need systems that support and protect these wrongfully convicted men and women once they are exonerated. And, third, we were taught that things need to change so wrongful convictions don’t just keep on happening.
But what about the unspoken victims? Yes the wrongfully convicted people have been hurt; yes their families have been hurt; yes their loved ones have been hurt. But is that all?
We don’t think so.
When innocent men and women are put behind bars the real perpetrators of the crime are still free and capable of inflicting more harm. In fact, the first 250 wrongful convictions enabled the actual perpetrators to commit at least 72 more violent acts that wouldn’t have happened had they been found sooner. That adds up to a lot of victims, families and friends that have been hurt by the trail of wrongful convictions.
Can you think of other people who are hurt by wrongful convictions? The families of the first victims who wrongly thought that the actual accuser was behind bars? What about taxpayers or whole communities, do they get hurt too?
Sometimes in life it can feel like there are a lot of things to be angry about and this thought is especially true when it comes to wrongful convictions. Imagine feeling trapped, out of hope, resentful and distrustful of a world that harshly mistreated you.
As one man so aptly stated at a recent TESTED speaking engagement: “I get angry just waiting in traffic, how do you guys do it?”
Well, looking at the stories of Johnnie Lindsey, Steven Phillips and Christopher Scott, three of the exonerated men exposed in TESTED, there are some things we can all learn.
Johnnie Lindsey survived colon cancer in addition to the major frustrations of wrongful imprisonment by focusing on the good and using mantras such as, “When there is life, there is hope, and at least I am alive” (p 5). For Johnnie, still being alive was the most positive thing he could find and focusing on “just being alive” helped him to battle tough times (p 7). Also, Johnnie relied on music and even joined a prison band to help him “find beauty, just little spots of beauty” to focus on.
Steven Phillips was able to channel his anger into activity by using sports and writing. Phillips played for the prison’s football and softball teams and also wrote a prison newspaper for the prison’s chapel – he even got other inmates to write for the newspaper, too! In addition, Steven also benefited from realizing his own limits, having faith, and praying, “Help me because I cannot do this by myself” (p 27).
Christopher Scott benefited from a combination of both focusing on the positive and staying active. Before being imprisoned he was in a loving relationship and by looking at old pictures from those happier times he was able to get “through the day” (p 69).
While all of these men noted that the hurt and anguish surrounding wrongful imprisonment and spending time in prison is unavoidable, they recount that the anger was more hurtful if left to grow and credit a part of their eventual exoneration to their ability to move past their anger towards a more productive and clear-sighted place.
Could this be the secret to living a life free of anger? Perhaps focusing on the positive, staying active, and learning when to give up control versus when to keep on fighting really is the key.
Life after exoneration can be incredibly difficult. Technology has changed so much it is unrecognizable; connections with friends and loved ones are lost; a sense of belonging to popular culture has vanished. To add insult to injury, any money in the bank has likely been spent on legal fees and, in some states, more post-jail services are available to parolees than to exonerees.
Immediately after exoneration, there are issues: finding housing, finding a job, and making sure that day-to-day necessities are in order. Will I have clothes to wear? What about a toothbrush? Transportation? What about a phone so that potential employers can actually reach me?
Unfortunately, exonerees are not entitled to the job they had before the were wrongfully imprisoned and because of the intense prejudices society bestows upon people who have spent time in prison, innocent or not, finding and securing a job can be very difficult. What’s more, many exonerees struggle with the conviction on their record for years before they are officially cleared.
Some exonerees are given compensation for their loss of freedom, yet that is hardly enough. Recently, when Anthony Graves learned that he will receive $1.4 million in set allowances over a period of many years, he said: “It’s not the lottery that I won. I lost 18 years of my life and if I had a choice between the money and the 18 years, I would take the 18 years.”
That’s a sentiment that all exonerees share: they are thankful for whatever support and financial assistance that they are given but they are aware that such help will never make up for the fact that they lost days, months and years from their lives – time they will never get back.
We need more programs and laws that assist exonerees in adjusting to life outside of the prison cell. In addition, we need the few practices that are already in place to reach more exonerees and help them as much as possible. Yes, Richard Miles will never get the time he lost behind bars back, but the money that he will receive will help him to get on his feet and rebuild his life. But what about Richard Miles? He has received no compensation. And what about Eugene, Keith, and Entre? They received very little compensation.
Eventually we are going to have to wake up to the fact that freeing a person from wrongful conviction is not enough – we also have to help them readjust to society and to the lives that the so rightly deserve.
Across the country, DNA testing is being used to free the wrongfully convicted and, in its wake, reveal the errors and misconduct within our criminal justice system. One of the biggest errors has to do with procedures in the crime labs. In fact, according to The Innocence Project, improper forensic science has been a part of about half of the wrongful convictions exposed by DNA testing.
So what’s happening in the crime labs? Sadly, it looks like they are riddled by biases caused by procedures that are not conducive to serving justice.
To start with state labs are often the only labs to test crime scene evidence. This means that individual crime lab workers employed by state or local governments are protected by qualified immunity making them less personally accountable for improper conduct. What’s more, since state labs are more protected, they do not have to be so cautious in saving evidence. In fact, state labs often destroy biological evidence after a defendant has exhausted his or her appeals, as saving evidence is costly and is only useful in possibly revealing past mistakes. Furthermore, when labs are being run by the state, there is also a sense of confusion in regards to whether the crime lab workers are being employed to conduct sound analysis, or to help win convictions.
Of course, this confusion isn’t necessarily intentional. But what else do you think can happen when forensic experts who must testify in court as objective analysts must also report directly to prosecutors or police agencies? What’s more, biases can also occur in which tests to run, how to record test results and how to interpret test results. Furthermore, many of these labs do not incorporate even basic scientific principles such as double-blind testing and peer review.
In an effort to save time, costs and “find” the perpetrator, perhaps these crime labs are losing sight of who they are really supposed to look after. Scandals have been reported in state crime labs including California, Mississippi, and West Virginia… how many more scandals must break loose before new methods and systems of oversight take place?
Dallas County does a wonderful thing with its biological evidence: Dallas saves it. But what about all the other counties? Wouldn’t you think that they would follow Dallas’s lead and never discard biological evidence? Well, the fact is, many lawmakers and citizens agree that new state measures are needed to guard crucial evidence for possible future testing. So why don’t they? Sadly, a lot of the hesitance comes down to money. In fact, it is estimated that the primary testing lab in Dallas costs $5 million per year. Where does the money go? Well, storage is costly. Testing and maintenance are costly. And with every new piece of saved evidence also comes the need to increase warehouse space.
It’s expensive. But how much do you think justice and human life are worth? How much do you think it’s worth to protect the innocent and to take the truly guilty off the streets? Perhaps before DNA testing it didn’t make any sense to save biological evidence. But now it does. And if we can’t afford to test the available DNA evidence in all cases, can’t we at least keep it for a later date? The TESTED men sure think so!