Top Reasons People are Falsely Imprisoned
If you ever get arrested for a high-profile murder that you didn’t commit, here’s a tip: Take a decent mugshot.
Blink away the bleariness in your eyes. Fix your unkempt hair. And for God’s sake, try not to look so guilty.
Because maybe that will help sway a public that has, in its collective consciousness, already convicted you. It’s just human intuition: If you’re booked on a felony, you’ve committed the crime.
Studies show that 2.3% to 5% of all those currently locked up in US prison are actually innocent. That could mean as many as 100,000 inmates are languishing behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit — each wondering, “How did I get here?”
That’s the question I explore in my new book, “Stolen Years: Stories of the Wrongfully Convicted,” in which I profile 10 extraordinary individuals who endured hell on earth — and lived to tell the tale.
Why are people put away for crimes they didn’t commit? The National Registry of Exonerations looked at 1,700 people who have been cleared since 1989 and discovered these main reasons:
13% – False confessions
Damon Thibodeaux, center, at a press conference in September, 2012. Thibodeaux was released from Louisiana’s death row after DNA tests found him to be innocent.
Damon Thibodeaux was just 22 when New Orleans cops hauled him in for questioning over the brutal rape and murder of his 14-year-old cousin.
For the next nine hours, the detectives methodically worked Thibodeaux over using the Reid technique, which involves steps devised to convince the suspect that there’s so much evidence against him that his case is hopeless.
Finally, desperate and exhausted, he gave up. “I didn’t know I had done it. But I done it,” he said.
And with that, Thibodeaux sat in solitary confinement on Louisiana death row for 15 years.
There are a number of reasons people confess to crimes they didn’t commit. Sometimes they’re mentally impaired or intoxicated, or are just ignorant of the law. Or, as with Thibodeaux, they confess because cops give them no other choice.
32% – Eyewitness misidentification
For 19-year-old Cornelius Dupree (featured photo,) the skip from freedom to lockup was so fast, so sudden, so random, that the reality didn’t sink in until he was known as inmate #308310.
In 1979, the Dallas teen had been walking with a friend to a party when the two were stopped and frisked by police officers looking for suspects in a robbery-rape case. Dupree and his friend were arrested. The rape victim and her boyfriend picked them out of a photo lineup.
And that was all authorities needed to get them sentenced to 60 years in prison.
“There is no more powerful evidence than a sympathetic, traumatized victim pointing a finger at the defendant and saying, ‘I’m absolutely positive that that is that man who assaulted me. I will never forget his face for as long as I live,’ ” said Nina Morrison, the senior attorney with the Innocence Project and the lawyer who represented Dupree.
But the National Academy of Sciences released a report in 2014 finding a host of factors that can impact a witness’ ability to properly identify someone in a lineup, such as biases, stress and uncomfortable viewing conditions. And memory itself gets badly distorted over time.
Dupree was imprisoned for 31 years. Finally, old DNA evidence surfaced proving he and his friend were not the rapists.
22% – Bad forensic science
In case after case, inaccurate forensic tests have sent innocent men and women to prison.
Much of what got Chicago handyman James Kluppelberg locked up for setting a fire that killed a mother and five of her kids was shoddy forensics conducted by Capt. Francis Burns of the Chicago Fire Department.
Burns had taken no notes and made no reports, yet he testified with authority that the burn patterns he noticed at the fire scene bore the markings of arson. This was in spite of investigators concluding that the cause couldn’t be determined.
A quarter-century later, Kluppelberg’s lawyers proved that Burns’ testimony had no scientific basis.
“He had testimony that I would characterize as junk science,” said one of his attorneys Gayle Horn, of the Chicago firm Loevy & Loevy and founding member of the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School. “Certainly nobody’s standing behind it now. It’s been debunked by the current understanding of how arson works. But even at the time, that wasn’t really a valid analysis.”
55% – False accusation
When a jailhouse snitch named Greg Gully testified in 1998 that he’d heard Louisville bricklayer Kerry Porter admit to killing a truck driver in cold blood, the jury bought it. In their eyes, the snitch’s words amounted to a confession from Porter himself.
Porter’s only connection to the victim, Tyrone Camp, was that they had at separate times been in a relationship with the same woman.
A witness to the killing had ID’d a photo of Porter as being the killer but later expressed doubt that he had seen the killer well enough.
Nevertheless, Porter went to prison for 13 years.
“Even though we know from empirical data that confessions are sometimes false, if they’re incredibly persuasive, you have to ask, ‘Why would somebody say they did it if they didn’t?’ ” said Porter’s attorney Melanie Lowe, from the Kentucky Innocence Project. “This was the nastiest version of that. It was filtered through someone the prosecution presented as having no motive to lie. We found he had every reason to lie.”
Like many jailhouse snitches, Gully lied under oath in exchange for leniency in his own case. None of this was mentioned at Porter’s trial because Gully’s identity wasn’t known even by Porter’s public defender.
“He was very believable to the jury because they thought he was just a guy that happened to be in jail, that knew the victim and took it upon himself to get this information,” Lowe said. “And that’s the one thing the jury found the most persuasive when they were polled after the case.”
47% – Official misconduct
Devon Ayers starts to cry as Judge Denis Boyle vacates his sentence and orders him freed in January, 2013.
Bronx teen Devon Ayers was a classic victim of unfair and overly aggressive law-enforcement practices.
Ayers might not have done 17 years for two brutal murders had police turned over a crucial surveillance video that discredited one of the key witnesses. And years later, Ayers’ innocence team discovered that police had also fed crime-scene details to two drug-addict witnesses to help them “recollect” what they’d seen.
Prosecutorial misconduct includes withholding exculpatory evidence from the defense, destroying evidence, and allowing unreliable witnesses or fraudulent experts to testify. Police misconduct includes coercing false confessions, lying on the witness stand, or failing to turn over evidence to prosecutors.
Thibodeaux, Dupree, Kluppelberg, Porter, Ayers and the five others profiled in my book are among the tiny fraction of innocent people who make it out of prison.
Most just give up fighting because the odds are too big — the evidence was lost or destroyed, the fraudulent accuser refuses to recant, or they can’t find a lawyer to take their case.
If there’s a silver lining, it’s that these problems are being investigated more and more. In 1989 only 21 people were freed for false imprisonment. Last year, 125 were.
Each exoneration brings more awareness to the problem, which gets more public eyes focused on the police and prosecutors whose overly aggressive tactics, bad evidence, or misconduct put innocent people away.
But there’s still a long way to go.