The year 2014 was an extraordinary year for individuals who have been wrongfully convicted and those who advocate for their freedom. Reports show that in 2014, 125 individuals were exonerated in the United States—the most in American history. Since 1989, there have been 1,536 exonerations. That is, there are 1,536 people have been wrongfully accused, convicted, and sentenced to prison but later found innocent. Exonerations happen for a variety of reasons: unreliable eyewitness testimony, faulty forensic evidence, and police and prosecutorial misconduct. Too often, wrongful convictions lead to decades of incarceration for crimes they did not commit.
That is the case for Ricky Jackson, a Cleveland man who served thirty-nine years in prison for a crime he did not commit. In 1975, Jackson was convicted of killing a money-order collector in a Cleveland grocery store. The witness, just twelve at the time, recanted. He said that he was fed information about what happened at the scene of the crime, and coerced by Cleveland police to testify against Jackson. He says that he actually was on a school bus when the murder took place.
For Jackson, it was police officers bullying a scared 12 year old boy to provide false testimony. But officers also use these tactics to coerce adults to give false confessions. Over a third of those exonerated last year pled guilty to crimes they did not commit. Too often, people are coerced or threatened into taking a plea. This is particular true in capital cases, where people plea to avoid the death sentence and hope for parole.
The state with the most exonerations this past year was Texas, coming in at thirty-nine. Thirty-three of these were drug cases where convictions were dismissed after labs determined that the individuals did not have illegal substances. Illinois tied for third place (with Michigan) with seven exonerations. One of those individuals was Daniel Taylor. He confessed to committing a double murder as a teenager. Taylor, however, was behind bars on a disorderly conduct charge at the time the murders occurred. Some police records supporting Taylor’s alibi were brought up at trial. Still, a jury found him guilty of the crime. More than two decades later, Taylor is a free man. Taylor was issued a certificate of innocence on January 23, 2014.
The justice system appears to be taking a step in the right direction and exonerating those who have been wrongfully convicted, but more can and must be done. Advocates continue to fight for the wrongfully convicted. It is not just about being free but also about clearing your name. Take for examples Tyrone Hood and Anthony Dansberry. Both have spent decades incarcerated for crimes they did not commit. Because there is overwhelming evidence proving their innocence, as one of Former Illinois Governor Patrick Quinn’s last acts in office, he commuted Hood’s and Dansberry’s sentences. While they are now nominally “free” men, they are still jammed in the judicial system trying to clear their names. But until they do, they still have to report to parole officers and must abide by certain restrictions or run the risk of being sent back to prison.
Law schools clinics, such as U of Chicago’s Exoneration Project and Northwestern’s Center for Wrongful Convictions, have entire staffs of attorneys and students working solely to gain the freedom of those who have been wrongfully accused. Because of their work, people are becoming more aware of this epidemic and putting pressure on government officials to make things right. In the past decade, fifteen special prosecutor units have been set up to re-examine convictions based on faulty evidence, with some units being more successful and genuine about their tasks than others. As we move in 2015, we hope these units will continue improve the process and work towards freeing and exonerating those who have been wrongfully convicted.