Last night we were at Northaven Methodist in Dallas where we listened to Victor Thomas, Richard Miles, Christopher Scott, Johnnie Lindsey, Craig Watkins and Michelle Moore speak. As always, we were incredibly amazed by the struggles that these men went through and the incredible feats that they had to accomplish along with the people on their side such as Craig and Michelle.
What were we most inspired by last night? The issue of anger and bitterness. Or rather, the lack thereof.
You see, one would expect that after being locked in prison for something that you did not do, and being subjected to years and years of the prison life, and being aware of the fact that you might never get out, that you might have to live in prison for the rest of your life despite the fact that you are innocent… well we imagine that this would make a person pretty angry. Yet, the truth is, these men are anything but bitter.
And, as one attendee from last night questioned: “I deal poorly with anger while driving down the highway – how did you guys manage?” How do the TESTED men stay positive despite such pressing injustices, while so many people can barely control their own feelings of anger regarding their day-to-day lives?
Johnnie Lindsey made it seem easy. He said: “We know how bitterness and hatred eats an individual up from the inside” and if you cannot control it, “anger distorts reality.” He suggested that we all try to turn our negative reactions into positive outcomes and that we do this by intently changing our focus. For instance, while in prison, Lindsey focused on the fact that he was innocent instead of the fact that he was imprisoned. And, with that focus, he eventually found freedom.
Late last week we watched as Johnnie Pinchback was, finally, exonerated. Johnnie had served 27 years behind bars for an aggravated sexual assault that he did not commit and watching his first few minutes of freedom was a true reminder of what can happen with love, support and faith.
The first thing Johnnie did immediately following the hearing was greet the fellow exonerees who had so inspired him to pursue his own exoneration. Next, he hugged his mother, his wife, and his friends and family. And, in the way that Johnnie embraced those around him, it was obvious: love and support through friendship is paramount to Johnnie, something that so obviously helped him to survive, persist and finally, find freedom.
Next, Johnnie talked to the crowd and said: “It was pretty hard, but I trusted in God” and “I knew that one day I would be a free man.” Again, Johnnie reminds us that no matter how great one’s trials: you can’t do it alone. You need to have faith in something, to believe, to have a purpose.
Johnnie had faith in his freedom and, after 27 years behind bars, Johnnie’s faith, and the love and support that he got from those close to him, got him through. Those are the ingredients to freedom: faith, love and support!
A lab in Dallas County is exonerating more wrongly convicted crimes than any other county in the United States – in fact, since 2001, the lab’s DNA archive has helped free 21 prisoners serving up to life in prison. These exonerations have nothing to do with specific attributes of the Dallas county criminal justice system but, instead, with one simple fact: Dallas saves evidence. With samples taken from all the way back in 1978, this lab, the Institute of Forensic Sciences, has become a herald in the national push for more uniform standards regulating how biological evidence should be retained in criminal cases.
So why isn’t all evidence retained, anyway? It turns out that, even after the eye-opening innocence exonerations in Dallas and other counties, only about half of the states currently require the automatic preservation of DNA evidence after conviction. According to the Innocence Project, Texas is one of them, while Pennsylvania, Kansas, and New York, are not.
As we have seen through TESTED, false convictions can happen and innocent men and women can be put in jail for crimes they did not commit. We believe that to feel safe in life we need to know the good from the bad, the innocent from the guilty. How can we know this for sure without proper DNA evidence retention? We can’t. All states need to retain the evidence; the saving grace shouldn’t be Dallas’ alone.
According to the Innocence Project, innocent defendants made false confessions or incriminating statements in around 25% of DNA exoneration cases. Why does this happen? Why would someone who is absolutely innocent confess to a crime that he or she absolutely did not commit? It turns out that the typical interrogation practices used to “break down” those under interrogation can also break down innocent people.
For instance, the main factors that contribute to a false confession during police interrogations include: coercion, duress, intoxication, mental impairment, diminished capacity, fear of violence, ignorance of the law, the threat of a harsh sentence, misunderstanding of the situation, or the actual infliction of harm. Those are the leading causes!
It makes sense that confessions obtained by juveniles, people with mental disabilities, or even people under severe exhaustion or fear, are unreliable. What’s more, we wonder: if the tables were turned, would these fragile types who were able to perjure themselves ever be considered reliable eye witnesses for another crime? We think not, which just makes the issue of forced “confessions” even more serious. Let’s not forget: we are supposed to protect the weak, not prey on them.
Yesterday Osama bin Laden’s DNA was tested and we know, without a shadow of a doubt, that he is dead. Once again, DNA testing has proven itself to be immeasurably beneficial in setting the fact from the fiction and helping us to know what is the truth. The DNA testing told us that the threat of Osama bin Laden, a high profile terrorist, was no longer of concern. But what about the other things that DNA testing can tell us? What about the innocence, the human lives, that DNA testing can reveal – as opposed to the guilt and proof of death?
There is no doubt in our minds that testing Osama bin Laden’s DNA was completely necessary as he was, in fact, an “important case.” But we argue: why stop there? Why stop with the high profile cases and ignore cases such as Steven Phillips’s, an innocent man wrongly imprisoned for years. What about him?
Since DNA testing has become such an immediate protocol for the “classified” cases, doesn’t it stand to reason that it should, also, become protocol for the more everyday cases? A life is a life and as we continue watching these huge feats of justice accomplished outside of the country, we wonder, what about here? What about the innocent people here? It seems like a huge waste of technology and disrespect for human life to ignore what DNA testing can tell us about all people, as opposed to just those covered by the media.
There is so much to know about Post-Conviction DNA exonerations, about the wrongfully imprisoned. There are the issues revolving around the defects of our justice system, there are the harmful stereotypes surrounding race, age, education and economic status, and there are the years and rights to freedom, lost.
But what about the absolute basics?
Here they are:
The first DNA exoneration took place in 1989. Since then there have been 268 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States. Out of these exonerations, the majority, over 198, occurred since the year 2000.
Only 34 states have seen exonerations won, including the leaders in the pack: Texas, Illinois and New York.
17 of the 268 people exonerated through DNA served time on death row!
Finally, the average length of time served by exonerees is 13 years. Meaning that, with the 268 innocent citizens wrongfully imprisoned, 3,471 total years have been lost.
Almost every man in tested, whether a DNA case or not, had exculpatory material withheld at some point in their case. This is not a problem specific to TESTED or to Dallas county. Rather, it’s a problem that is becoming increasingly apparent throughout the country.
Late last week, yet another story of withheld evidence came into the news. This time, the story has to do with a 1992 crime in Brooklyn where a 16-year-old girl, Jennifer Negron, was found dead on New Year’s day. Prosecutors told the jury that Jennifer’s headband was found in a parked car near the site that she was found and that this headband proved the guilt of the two men charged with kidnapping Jennifer off the street and forcing her into the car. The only problem? The headband was not Jennifer’s and the car, well, the car couldn’t have been involved in the crime, either.
In a remarkable hearing last fall, a retired women named Betty Bonner-Moody testified that she was the owner of the car, that her daughters were the owners of the headband, and that her car could not have possibly been used in the crime because she had it parked all night at her local church. Even more, Moody testified that the event she attended at her church was so crowded that, even if someone had wanted to use her car, they could not have possibly freed it from the many cars surrounding it. Moody also testified that when she left the event, she found her car parked exactly as she had left it.
So why was this evidence left out? That’s what the two men imprisoned for the crime, Everton Wagstaffe and Reginald Conner, would like to know. So they are filing motions in the State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, arguing that the verdict should be thrown out since the police and prosecutors hid evidence that would have saved them from a guilty verdict in a crime … a conviction that was made on the grounds of a headband and a car that belonged to no one involved!
In Dallas this past Wednesday, The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected a Dallas judge’s recommendation that Benjamin John Spencer, a man who has spent over 20 years in prison for a carjacking turned deadly, should be declared innocent. Spencer’s conviction rested solely on eyewitness testimony, evidence that is inherently not foolproof. The court’s decision to reject his exoneration bid makes it clear that the Appeals Court requires proof of innocence to be absolutely, positively certain (as in the 100% certainty afforded by DNA testing).
We agree, theoretically. But what about the cases, such as Spencer’s, where there is no DNA evidence – the only sort of evidence that can be as clear as the Appeals Court demands? What about the cases, such as Spencer’s, where there is compelling evidence pointing to his innocence but where the circumstantial facts regarding the crime, such as lighting conditions, cannot be accurately preserved or reproduced. What then?
Could it be that along with the many people freed from wrongful convictions thanks to DNA evidence, there is also another group, a group whose innocence claims are becoming even less and less heard? Dallas Morning News writer Steve Blow thinks just that: the dark side of DNA evidence is that it has set the bar unreasonably high for proving innocence.
What do you think?
We cannot help but think of the three innocent men in TESTED with non-DNA cases. To learn more about the struggles of innocent men to prove their innocence without DNA read the stories of Richard Miles, Chris Scott and Stephen Brodi in TESTED.
The men of tested share their testimony at Daystar Deliverance Ministries. Christopher Scott, Thomas McGowan and Richard Miles movingly described the day of their release.
Tonight Three of the men from TESTED who spent decades in prison for crimes they did not commit will be sharing their stories at SMU school of law at 7 pm.