Each quarter, we think it’s important to remind people that the criminal justice system is fallible, and that thousands of innocent people are swept into it based on human error or misconduct. This quarter’s wrongful conviction roundup focuses on people who were victimized by law enforcement officers’ intentional bad acts. What makes police fficers distort the evidence against someone? Sometimes it may be the officers’ mistaken belief that they know who committed a crime, but other times it is indifference to justice, blatant racism, arrogance, or just plain corruption. The latest round of wrongful convictions gives you a mix of all of the above.
The Norfolk Four: Four navy servicemen were wrongfully convicted of a 1997 rape-murder. They were pardoned by the governor of Virginia last week. They were all charged with the rape-murder, even though their DNA did not match the crime scene evidence, which indicated a lone attacker. The true culprit confessed, pled guilty, and repeatedly claimed he acted alone, which was consistent with the DNA evidence and every piece of physical evidence from the crime scene. Nevertheless, threatened with the death penalty and facing extreme coercion during their interrogation, the Norfolk Four falsely confessed to also participating in the crime, although they were unable to get the details correct because their confessions were untrue. The lead detective who extracted the Four’s “confessions” had previously been disciplined for obtaining false confessions and was convicted in 2010 of crimes that involved lying to judges and prosecutors (he is currently serving a 12-year federal prison sentence). In 2016, the district court issued an opinion finding the accused innocent by any measure and stating that “no sane human being could find them guilty.” The pardons finally end the Four’s nightmare. Congratulations to Joseph Dick, Derek Tice, Danial Williams, and Eric Wilson, the Norfolk Four.
40+ Cleveland Wrongful Convictions: The Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) Prosecutor’s Office is seeking to vacate the criminal convictions of at least 43 defendants whose cases resulted from investigations by three corrupt police detectives. Police detectives Torris Moore, Antonio Malone, and Eric Jones have all pled guilty to federal crimes for framing suspects. The three corrupt cops targeted people with criminal records, knowing that the word of the accused was unlikely to compete with that of police officers’ in court. The rogue officers stole from people whom they suspected were dealing drugs and then faked police reports and accusations to cover their tracks. So far, 22 of the detectives’ victims have had the cases against them dismissed, but authorities are still searching for another 21 victims to dismiss their cases as well. While vindicated of their criminal charges, the exonerated victims are not receiving full reimbursement of the money stolen from them by the crooked cops.
Sonia Cacy Exoneration: 25 years after being wrongfully convicted of the arson-murder of her stepfather, Sonia Cacy was finally exonerated in January. Junk science claims about the burn patterns of the fire and misrepresentations about the scientific evidence falsely turned what was actually a tragic, accidental fire into the fiction of a gasoline-induced arson. A post-conviction review of the evidence shows that the fire started when Cacy’s stepfather’s cigarette burned his sheets after he suffered a heart attack. Cacy’s false arson conviction and 99 year prison sentence, however, resulted from faulty science and deceptions. Cacy’s supposedly incriminating clothes were actually contaminated in the lab examining them. No one told her defense about the contamination or about the fact that the original lab finding, before the contamination, was that there were no fire accelerants on her clothing. One scientist, who was fired for complaining about irregularities at the lab including the Cacy investigation, testified that there was an intentional cover up of “unambiguous” findings that no fire accelerant was found on Cacy’s clothing. We are happy to see Cacy finally vindicated.
These stories remind us that behind every wrongful conviction, there is a person unjustly forced to endure prison and all of the collateral consequences of being falsely convicted. The system breaks down when law enforcement and our society fail to recognize that humanity and when cops act like the ends justify the means.