By Keith Knutson
September 16, 2018
In 1923, Judge Learned Hand wrote that our criminal justice system was “haunted by the ghost of the innocent man convicted.”
The 1995 book, “Convicted but Innocent,” began to fill in Judge Hand’s ghost with actual data. The authors estimated that 0.5 percent of convicted felons in America were actually innocent. Our criminal justice system was shocked, even offended by the estimate.
Only five years later, the best-seller “Actual Innocence” showed us the impact DNA analysis has on proving wrongful convictions. Today, some researchers suggest the actual rate of wrongful convictions may be as high as 10 percent.
If correct, this means we incarcerate more innocent prisoners in the United States than all prisoners combined in France, Germany and Britain.
The National Registry of Exoneration has almost 2,300 exonerees in its database.
One of those — wrongly convicted of a 1974 murder and imprisoned until 2016 — will speak Thursday at Viterbo University.
The work done by the Innocence Project, founded in 1992, provided a dramatic impact in our addressing the injustice of wrongful conviction. Our nation’s criminal justice system exonerated eight times as many prisoners in 2015, compared with 1989.
However, after exoneration the question becomes how will these unjustly incarcerated people get on with their lives? State governments and municipalities have paid $2.2 billion to exonerated former prisoners, through either lawsuits or state statues. Unfortunately, only half of all exonerees actually receive compensation for their time unjustly incarcerated.
An effort in Wisconsin to increase payments to our wrongfully convicted failed in the Legislature earlier this year. The bill proposed awarding up to $1 million in each case. Among states compensating those wrongly convicted, we remain the lowest in the nation, capping state payments at $25,000. Twenty states still offer no compensation at all.
All of the money used to compensate exonerees comes from public treasuries or municipal insurers. We do not hold public officials financially liable for their responsibility in wrongful convictions. Very seldom do we hold them to account if they undermine our legal system by sending innocents to prison. Perhaps if we did, the incidence of wrongful conviction could be reduced.
Additionally, as is too typical in criminal justice, skin color is a factor in wrongful conviction. Comprising 12 percent of our population, Black Americans constitute 46 percent of our exonerees. They spend more time in prison, and receive lower levels of compensation, than white exonerees receive.
One such person is Gary Tyler. In 1974, at age 16, he sat on a bus with other black students, headed home after attending the recently integrated high school in St Charles Parish, Louisiana. A crowd of several hundred protesters yelled at them, hurling bottles, rocks and racial slurs.
A 13-year-old white schoolmate outside the bus was shot and killed. Sheriff’s deputies searched the bus, claimed they had found a hidden gun (never recovered), and arrested Tyler for murder. Within one week, an all-white jury had sentenced him to death by electric chair.
Statistically, Tyler became the one of every 25 defendants sentenced to death who are later proven to be innocent.
Four witnesses on the bus later recanted their testimony regarding the shooting. A Supreme Court decision vacated his death sentence. Nonetheless, Tyler spent the next four decades in the infamous Angola prison. He finally achieved freedom, and justice delayed, in 2016.
The 18th century British legal scholar, William Blackstone, offered this advice: “It is better that 10 guilty persons escape, than one innocent suffer.” Convicted to death as an innocent teenager, Gary Tyler refuses to be haunted by the ghost of injustice perpetrated against him.
He will speak at Viterbo University’s San Damiano Chapel at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 20.