Justice Delayed: Can Money Compensate The Wrongfully Convicted?

March 4, 2015  |  

It seems like nearly every week we are reading about a wrongful conviction being overturned, most often involving cases with African-American men. And many a time, the wrongfully convicted has spent years, if not decades, in prison.

Most often the cases are overturned on DNA evidence and testing that had not been previously available. But the majority of those exonerated through DNA evidence are people of color. To deal with the issue of  wrongful convictions, the Innocence Project and the NAACP have teamed up to come up with solutions.

According to Innocence Project data on the 324 people exonerated through DNA evidence in the United States, 70 percent are people of color, and 63 percent are African American. And on average, they spent 13.5 years in prison, collectively a total of over 4,339 years, reports The Huffington Post. Six percent got a death sentence.

And in 2013 a record number of  wrongful convictions were overturned. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 87 people falsely convicted of crimes were exonerated in 2013, four more than in 2009, the year with the next highest total. The report by the Northwestern University and University of Michigan law schools found that nearly 40 percent of exonerations recorded in 2013 were either initiated by law enforcement or included police and prosecutors’ cooperation, reports The Daily Mail.

But a just-passed bill in Nebraska could help make a change. Under the bill, a person will have more time to seek a new trial based on newly discovered, non-DNA evidence. Previously, there was a three-year window after conviction. “It also would allow judges to order DNA testing on evidence that wasn’t previously tested, or where new technology could lead to more accurate results. Current law only allows the tests when such options weren’t available at trial,” reports 1011Now.

We’ve pulled a few examples to illustrate the issue.

Alan Newton: 22 Years In Prison
The Brooklyn, NY man was finally released after more than two decades in prison and just last week a U.S. appeals court ordered that Alan Newton be paid $18.5 million for his wrongful imprisonment. A jury decided in Newton’s favor due to the city’s mismanagement of evidence and found that his case should be reinstated, reversing a lower court’s ruling, reports the New York Daily News.

In his ruling, U.S. Circuit Judge Raymond Lohier wrote that Newton proved the city’s evidence-handling system was inadequate around the time of his conviction in 1985. “This evidence supports a finding that the City, through the poor administration of its evidence management system, perpetuated a practice or custom that was wholly inadequate,“ according to court documents.

Alstory Simon: 15 Years In Prison
In 1982 Alstory Simon, now 64, was convicted of a double murder in Chicago. He spent 15 years in prison. Only problem was he didn’t do it. Last year Simon was released and consequently sued Northwestern University for $40 million, alleging David Protess, a former Northwestern journalism professor, conspired with Paul Ciolino, a private investigator, to frame him for the double killing.

According to the lawsuit, Protess and Ciolino “intentionally manufactured false witness statements against Simon and then used the fabricated evidence, along with terrifying threats and other illegal and deceitful tactics, to coerce a knowingly false confession from Simon.”

“Northwestern’s conduct permitted a culture of lawlessness to thrive,” in Protess’ investigative journalism program, says court papers.

At first Simon did plead guilty to murder and manslaughter but later recanted, and for years tried to prove he’d been manipulated by Protess, the private eye, and his former defense lawyer. In October 2014, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez had Simon’s 37-year sentence thrown out.

“At the end of the day and in the best interests of justice, we could reach no other conclusion but that the investigation of this case has been so deeply corroded and corrupted that we can no longer maintain the legitimacy of this conviction,” Alvarez said then.

Ironically, Protess, who resigned from Northwestern in 2011 after the university concluded he’d made false statements to school officials, currently runs the Chicago Innocence Project, which investigates potential wrongful convictions.

There was even a film made about the case by filmmaker Shawn Rech called A Murder in the Park, released in 2013. The film argues that Simon was railroaded by Protess, his team and county prosecutors and that another felon was the true killer, reports Reuters.

Central Park Five: 6-13 Years In Prison
Late last year New York’s Central Park Five announced they were seeking $52 million in damages from the state in the Court of Claims, even after already winning a landmark $41 million settlement from the city. The five men, just teenagers at the time, were wrongfully jailed for the 1986 rape of a Central Park jogger, a case that shocked the city and the nation.

They spent between six and 13 years in prison. In 2002, criminal charges were dropped after another man confessed to the crime and said he acted alone. It turned out that man’s DNA was recovered from the jogger but he was never identified until his confession.

The case proved to be so egregious, it prompted a documentary by Ken Burns.

Ricky Jackson: 39 Years In Prison
Imagine spending nearly four decades in prison for a crime you didn’t commit. That happened to Ricky Jackson, who was wrongfully convicted of murder. He finally won his release in 2014 when a witness said he lied as a boy.

The Ohio Innocence Project and the University of Cincinnati had worked to free Jackson.

“They came through like a knight in shining armor,” Jackson, 57, said of the project at UC’s College of Law.

A judge in Cleveland dismissed the cases against Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman, 60, after the witness, who was 12 years old at the time of the slaying, recanted his testimony last year. He said Cleveland police coerced him into testifying that the two men and another man killed Cleveland businessman Harry Franks in 1975. The witness, Eddie Vernon, also said he remained quiet all these years because investigators threatened to imprison his parents.

Jackson was 39 years into his a life sentence for aggravated murder and other charges, reports The The Huffington Post.

While Jackson and Bridgeman have yet to file a lawsuit, various organizations and individuals have been raising money on their behalf.

The Dixmoor Five: 80 Years Collectively In Prison
The so-called Dixmoor Five won a landmark $40 million from Chicago in 2014. With shades of NYC’s Central Park Five, the Dixmoor Five were wrongfully imprisoned for the rape and murder of a teenage girl.  Their case was overturned after it was found that discovery authorities used false confessions.

The Dixmoor Five were arrested as teens for the November 1991 murder of Cateresa Matthews and sentenced to long stints in prison. “The three men who received the longest terms were freed in 2011 after DNA tests connected semen on Cateresa to a felon who had been paroled to near where Cateresa’s grandmother lived,” reports The Chicago Tribune. Collectively the men spent approximately 80 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.

Two of the men were released after serving 10-year terms. The others served close to two decades in prison before they were set free.

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