“There is nothing funny about a Black man going to prison for something he didn’t do.” My excitement about watching the movie Life was quickly shut down when my mother stated those words. As a 14-year-old, I hadn’t looked at it that way before. Life, starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence, was a hit comedy about the antics of two Black men in Mississippi serving life in prison after being wrongfully convicted of murder. She refused to watch it.
The truthful sting of my mother’s response was fully warranted. Being wrongfully convicted of murder happens far more often than people think and can happen to anybody but especially to African Americans. And indeed, there is nothing funny about it.
Even as far back as 1996, the book “Convicted But Innocent: Wrongful Conviction and Public Policy” estimated that there was an output of at least 10,000 wrongful convictions a year. The abstract states, “Even if the American criminal justice system proved 99.5 percent accurate, it would still generate more than 10,000 wrongful convictions a year and these would reflect only serious index crimes.”
More recently the Innocence Project highlighted that studies find,”between 2.3% and 5% of all prisoners in the U.S. are innocent (for context, if just 1% of all prisoners are innocent, that would mean that more than 20,000 innocent people are in prison).”
According to a 2012 report by the National Registry of Exonerations about 2,000 people have been exonerated for wrongful convictions since 1989. Still, this number is in the least bit comforting. As the report notes:
…even 2,000 exonerations over 23 years is a tiny number in a country with 2.3 million people in prisons and jails. If that were the extent of the problem we would be encouraged by these numbers. But it’s not. These cases merely point to a much larger number of tragedies that we do not know about.
So how does this happen?
The Innocence Project lists the leading causes of false convictions as eye-witness misidentification, false confessions, improper forensic evidence and informants. One would think that these components would only lead to rightful convictions but each is severely flawed. For example, in 73% of convictions overturned with DNA, prosecutors used eye-witness accounts. But in many of these accounts there was “cross racial identification,” a known issue because studies show that it’s harder for witnesses to remember the facial details of people from other races.
False confessions are flawed due to pressures to accept plea deals and other coercion tactics. Informants are problematic sources because they are often offered plea deals and dropped charges in exchange for their testimony.
Dateline NBC recently featured a story about Eric Glisson, a man that was wrongfully convicted of murder and served over 17 years in prison. There was no physical evidence, only the words of one “eye-witness” and two other allegedly coerced witnesses. One of these witnesses recanted her testimony stating that she only testified due to police pressure of being threatened with jail time. It took 17 years, but Glisson and his co-defendants were finally freed. A total of five Black and Latino people (four men and one woman) had been in prison for almost two decades for a crime they didn’t commit.
Then there’s the story of The Central Park Five, who were recently awarded $40 million dollars after enduring 7-13 years in prison for a 1989 rape. In 2002, they were exonerated after a confession from the real perpetrator and DNA evidence proved their innocence. In another case, Jonathan Fleming was recently released after spending 24 years in prison for a Brooklyn, NY murder that was committed while he was in Florida.
There are many more stories like these that have yet to be concluded.
I recently learned of a case that hits closer to home. Jean Pierre DeVaughn is the older brother of a friend that I attended college with. Accused of murder-for-hire in the 2005 death of his cousin’s husband, Devaughn has maintained his innocence. He was convicted in 2011 and sentenced to life in prison with an additional 25 years. Having no prior record, he was offered a plea deal but refused to take it, wanting to fully clear his name.
His case is fraught with a series of issues. Devaughn endured an intense interrogation by police, during which a chair was thrown at him, he was taunted and his requests for a lawyer were denied. Additionally, there is no physical evidence linking him to the crime.
According to his defense attorney, a key witness in the first trial testified under the false pretense that Devaughn had accused him of being the murderer. Additionally, racial bias may have tainted jury selection leading to three African Americans being excluded from the jury.
In 2009, Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. endorsed a letter written to the Fulton County District Attorney Office on Devaughn’s behalf. He is now represented by Janice L. Mathis, lawyer, activist and Vice President of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition Atlanta chapter.
Some may think it a bit presumptuous to believe that Devaughn is innocent, but history has shown us not to ignore pleas for a second look at trials that were once proclaimed to be “open and shut” cases. For now Devaughn waits in a Georgia prison for another chance to prove his freedom. The Supreme Court of Georgia will soon review his case.
Perhaps the most disturbing fact about these cases is this could happen to anyone and exonerations are rare occurrences. Many wrongful convictions include death row prisoners, which is all the more reason to support efforts to end the death penalty.
As an article from Scientific American highlighted, “Since 1973 144 death-sentenced defendants have been exonerated in the U.S. But Gross says that the analysis indicates that at least 340 people would have been put to death unjustly in that same time period.”
According to the Innocence Project, there have been only 316 post-conviction DNA exonorees, with 198 being African Americans. This is a daunting number considering African Americans only make up 13% of the US population. The numbers indicate that there is an overwhelming rate of bias concerning death sentencing for African Americans. Additionally, it’s hard to have many cases reviewed due to destroyed or lost evidence.
Something is devastatingly wrong here in the land of the “free,” especially considering the influence of corporate profits from the prison industrial complex. This is a real life horror story.
There is a perception that criminal convictions among African American youth are inherently just. But the fact is, many convictions stem from not having proper representation, not knowing the full scope of their rights when questioned by the police, being denied their rights and racially biased sentencing. An overwhelming amount of exonorees are Black men and women because an overwhelming amount of this demographic are wrongfully convicted or given harsher sentencing than their counterparts (sometimes even according to skin tone).
For now, it’s important to support initiatives like the Innocence Project and the Center on Wrongful Convictions that are doing the work to assist as many wrongfully convicted prisoners as possible. Push for your local jurisdiction to include preventative measures like recorded interrogations, proper and long-term preservation of forensic evidence, and advocating for eye-witness identification reform.
Please do not republish this article without specific, written permission from Jessica Ann Mitchell.
Jessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & BlackBloggersConnect.com. To reach JAM, email her at OurLegaci@gmail.com. Follow Jessica @TweetingJAM.
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