In honor of International Wrongful Convictions Day — a day meant to recognize and raise awareness of those who were wrongfully convicted of a crime they did not commit — I thought I’d reflect on the first wrongful conviction case I worked on and why the search for justice cannot always end with the knock of a gavel.
My early days helping to right wrongful convictions
I was a senior detective investigator at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and the District Attorney wanted a post-conviction case to be re-investigated. Although a colleague of mine was the lead on the case and I played a very minor role — present for only a few witness interviews — it still had an impact on me, primarily because it was the right thing for the District Attorney to do: to ensure the right person (or persons) was in jail for a horrific crime.
It was the early 2000s, right around when a few district attorney’s offices began looking to create what some offices across the country now have: a Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) or Conviction Review Unit (CRU). When I began researching the history of CIUs, I was astounded to learn that in 2017, only 33 such units out of 2,300 prosecutors’ offices were across the U.S. That isn’t to say that other prosecutors’ offices aren’t working on such cases; however, the number of formal units struck me as low, especially given advances in DNA testing and the expansion of the Innocence Project network, not to mention the general public’s growing interest in these cases thanks to the popularity of NPR’s podcast Serial and the many others that have since aired.
Since that first wrongful conviction case, I’ve worked from within the private sector to support organizations that investigate and seek to overturn wrongful convictions, such as the Innocence Project and Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions. Over the years, my colleagues and I have conducted research on individuals of interest, located witnesses, helped develop investigative strategies and interviewed witnesses to assist in this important work.
The persistent problem and fighting for the innocent
Since 1989, 2,272 individuals have been exonerated of a former guilty conviction, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. That’s an astounding number. The Registry also reported an equally surprising metric this past August – the number of “years lost” that exonerated defendants spent in prison for crimes they did not commit exceeded 20,000 years. Notably, black defendants served a majority of that time.
One case I worked on involved an innocent person who spent nearly 20 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. Over the course of the investigation, I helped interview key witnesses as well as an alternate suspect, which eventually led to the conviction of the real killer and the exoneration of the innocent man.
There are countless others inside and outside our legal system who work doggedly to find and fight for the truth. Particularly today, I want to shed light on all those who work so hard, day in and day out, for the innocent. I give credit to those prosecutors and those in law enforcement who are willing to take another look into a case they thought was a ‘done deal.’ I am in awe of the dedication I’ve witnessed first-hand from the attorneys, investigators and support staff of places like the Center on Wrongful Convictions and the network of Innocence Projects across the country.
But I marvel most at the strength of the innocent – those wrongfully convicted and still in prison for a crime they did not commit – and their families. I’ve met some exonerees personally and heard others speak, and it’s always a reminder of how sacred truth and freedom really are.
How to get involved
It is clear our criminal justice system needs reform; however, it is important to remember that we can all play a role, even those of us outside the legal system. Community members, including teachers, activists and volunteers, all play a significant part in ensuring that justice prevails. There are numerous ways to get involved, including participating in fundraising or other volunteer opportunities or raising awareness by sharing links to important films and episodes regarding wrongful convictions.
For readers based in Chicago, you can join me at the 2018 Center on Wrongful Convictions Annual Benefit on November 8, where we will celebrate both the innocent and those who continue to fight for the truth.