Most of us likely sleep easier when we’re told that a violent criminal terrorizing our neighborhood has been apprehended. But would we sleep as well if we knew that that person was actually innocent? Would we sleep as well if we knew the real criminal was still at large, just waiting for an opportunity to offend again? And if this criminal wasn’t alone but was accompanied by thousands of others?
Our pleasant slumber has become a nightmare. Unfortunately, this nightmare is all too real.
Organizations like Innocence Project estimate that 5% to 10% of the U.S. prison population is factually innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. (Figures in other countries are likely to be similar.)
At the end of 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice put the population of federal, state, and local jails at about 1.4 million. Even using the conservative estimate of 5%, that would mean about 70,000 of those are innocent, serving time for violent crimes they didn’t commit.
Do the math. For every innocent person behind bars, a guilty person still walks among us. 70,000 criminals, with no one pursuing them because, as far as the authorities – the police and the courts – are concerned, the crimes they committed have already been solved with the guilty safely behind bars.
Read Getting Life: An Innocent Man’s 25-Year Journey from Prison to Peace from Amazon.
To put a face to these figures, consider James Curtis Giles. James served ten years in prison for aggravated rape, then another ten years as a registered sex offender. His true crime? He happened to have a name similar to the man eventually identified as the likely real assailant, James Earl Giles.
Or consider Anthony Capozzi. Anthony served twenty years in prison for rape while the biological evidence that could have exonerated him sat forgotten in a hospital drawer.
Or consider Curtis McCarty who spent twenty-one years in prison – including sixteen years on death row – for murder. He was eventually exonerated by DNA testing, yet he should never have been convicted in the first place. Why was he? A forensic analyst intentionally falsified findings and destroyed evidence. She was eventually fired for forensic fraud, but not before she testified in thousands of other cases.
Intentional misconduct on the part of police, forensic analysts, prosecutors, and judges is only one reason the innocent may be convicted. There’s also mis-identification by witnesses, lies told by informants and snitches, unreliable laboratory science, poor physical evidence, and simple incompetence on the part of defense attorneys.
We may be inclined to dismiss cases of wrongful conviction by the assumption that those so convicted must have done something to incriminate themselves, that if they weren’t wholly guilty of the crimes for which they were convicted, they must have been guilty in some related case. We could assure ourselves that all we have to do to avoid their fate is to stay out of trouble.
If so, we’d be deluding ourselves.
James Curtis Giles was at a restaurant eating dinner with his wife when the home invasion and subsequent rape for which he was convicted occurred.
Curtis McCarty had the simple misfortune of being acquainted with the person he did not murder, but he spent half his life in prison anyway.
These cases, and so many like them, underscore the fact that anyone can be wrongfully convicted. Living a quiet life and minding your own business is no guarantee of safety … or justice.
So what can you do?
Support organizations like Innocence Project. Petition your local politicians to enact laws and procedures that limit the likelihood of mis-identification or reliance on biased informants or unauthenticated forensic testimony. Don’t jump on the guilty bandwagon that condemns an accused before there’s been a fair trial. And remember that, even after a trial, when the verdict has been read and sentence has been passed, an accused may still be innocent.