The Age of Innocents

Ten times a month.

That’s how often an innocent person is freed from prison in our country, according to this 60 Minutes segment that aired Sunday night. And those are just the ones we know about.

I suspect the number comes from the National Registry of Exonerations, which recorded 125 exonerations in the year 2014. That year set a new record for known exonerations since the National Registry started keeping track of them. It exceeded the previous record, from 2013, by 37 percent. They don’t have last year’s tally yet, but you can browse the Registry’s website here, and you can read more stories about known exonerations here and here.

The 60 Minutes segment featured interviews with the following three people who lost large chunks of their lives to wrongful convictions.

The first is a black man from Alabama who spent thirty years on death row before he was exonerated last April. He was convicted based on a witness’s misidentification, and after thirty years in prison, he’s still learning that he’s free to shower every day if he wants to and that he doesn’t have to get up for breakfast at 3am. He’s never received a nickel of compensation or an apology from the state.

The second is a white man from Connecticut who spent 21 years in prison for rape and murder before DNA evidence cleared him. His conviction was based on misidentifications by witnesses who collected a $20,000 reward. He’s doing better now, but after his release, he would sometimes barricade himself in his closet and sleep there because he was afraid someone would kick his door down and drag him back.

The third is a white woman from Michigan who spent over five years in prison for child abuse before new medical evidence freed her. She was convicted because emergency-room doctors suspected her of shaking her sister’s baby, whom she was raising, to the point of brain damage. As it turned out, the baby had suffered a natural stroke. After her release, the woman found herself homeless for a time because she couldn’t find a job; she had a five-year gap on her resume to explain, and when she’d tell potential employers the truth, she never heard back. She’s never received any support or compensation from the state.

As a defense lawyer who pays attention to these stories, I come across one or more of them each week. Here’s another one from last October about a man in California who was cleared of child molestation after fifteen years in prison. And here’s another about a man from New York who was released after 25 years for arson and murder charges that were based on junk science. They are products of a human system that makes mistakes as often as we do.

And these are just the ones we know about.

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