Wrongful Convictions

One of the first juveniles I met during my incarceration was a 14 year old. Yes, 14 years old. At the time, he was the youngest person ever to be convicted as an adult in the United States.

His story is one of inexplicable tragedy. He came from a poor home where his father was a drug addict and his mother abusive. He has siblings, and spent the duration of his short childhood caring for them and trying to survive. For all intents and purposes his parents were parents in legal title only. He may as well have been living with strangers in a foreign land.

I’m not going to tell you the name of this offender, but I will tell you what I call him: Mouse. Mouse is a small fellow (thus the nickname I coined), and has never been much more than 150 pounds over the decades I’ve known him. He’s quiet, yet inquisitive. He’s smart, yet never talks down to anyone. If you didn’t know him it would be easy to overlook him in a crowd.

Mouse is serving a life sentence for the deaths of two elderly people. His sentence is extreme in its duration and his punishment is the worst I’ve ever seen save for the death penalty. Worse, he isn’t guilty of the crimes he’s serving time for. The murders were committed by friends (other juveniles) he was with on that fateful day; his only act of indiscretion was being in the wrong place with the wrong people at the wrong time. It was, in my opinion, just another cruel twist of fate life has dished at him since the day he was born.

In the ensuing outrage, Mouse and his friends were charged with homicide. However, sometimes there are injustices in sentencing. Innocent people go to jail and the guilty sometimes go free. Within this spectrum of erroneous sentencing, some go to jail for short periods of time, others for a lifetime. Mouse, unfortunately, is on the far end of that spectrum where his punishment of 40 years-to-life makes even hardened convicts feel for him. The last I heard, a non-profit group that works to exonerate the innocent was working on his case. I wish him luck. Unfortunately, in the United States, once you are behind bars it’s nearly impossible to reverse your circumstances even if innocent. This is especially true if you are poor.

Over the years I’ve wondered how many guys around me are in fact innocent. The number is small, to be sure, less than 1% I’d estimate based on my experience. Sometimes though, I wonder if I am wrong. In addition to Mouse, I knew two other individuals who were innocent, serving long sentences for crimes they did not commit. One was exonerated through DNA testing and released to heavy media fanfare, and the other was exonerated when facts came to light that the prosecution hid evidence of his innocence.

This type of prosecutorial misconduct isn’t isolated. I know and have known dozens of offenders who experienced similar actions to varying degrees. When I ponder why a prosecutor would go to such unethical lengths, I cannot help but conclude that it boils down to obtaining the conviction. Intentionally overcharge the defendant as a strategy to get counsel to consider plea bargains, and vigorously fight for each charge when this strategy fails. It’s a common practice throughout the United States, and is done to increase the probability of a conviction.

So this begs another question: How many people are incarcerated who were convicted of crimes that they committed, and a lesser crime that they did not commit due to such practices? In this realm I know about 200 individuals convicted in this manner.

For example, an offender I know is guilty of aggravated robbery, but was also convicted of grand theft for items stolen from the crime scene, yet he was not guilty of this. The conviction of grand theft may seem minor in comparison to the aggravated robbery charge, and one may say, “So what? What difference does it make?”

In the years after his conviction, information surfaced that the prosecution knew he was innocent and had withheld evidence from his counsel. But since he has already exhausted his appeals, he has few avenues to pursue. So in the end this offender is serving 10 years for the aggravated robbery and 2 years for the grand theft. It doesn’t sound like much, does it? Put yourself if those shoes and consider this for a moment. You will serve 10 years of your life for a crime you committed (the aggravated robbery charge), and then 2 years for a crime you didn’t commit. Doesn’t sound so insignificant now, does it? This happens frequently.

This can happen to you, too. No? You don’t need to commit robbery to be on the receiving end. The scale of prosecutorial misconduct slides in proportion to the most severe charge you face. A common example would be someone convicted of a DUI, and then being convicted of lesser traffic violations that they did not commit. Prosecutorial misconduct is prevalent enough that some media networks have made millions airing shows like 48 Hours or custom documentaries that sometimes highlight the issue.

If you are poor, you face a tougher road in proving your innocence in these situations. Public defenders assigned to your case carry heavy caseloads and little time to fight ‘minor grievances.’ Most of the time public defenders advise their clients to ‘pick their battles’ or ‘mention it on appeal,’ which is another way of saying, “You are poor and we don’t have the resources to fight this for you. If you had a paid attorney, this issue simply boils down to billing hours.”

-Christopher