Sex, Race, and Wrongful Conviction

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In the late 1980s, a white woman was raped and beaten so severely that she could not identify her attackers. As fear and outrage gripped the city, police investigators focused on Black teen suspects.

Interrogation produced “confessions” which led to convictions and years of imprisonment.

Subsequent investigation, however, revealed the defendants were innocent and the “confessions” were false.

If you are thinking about the April 1989 brutal attack on Trisha Ellen Meili in New York’s Central Park, notoriously known as the “Central Park Jogger” case, in which five young defendants were falsely accused and imprisoned, think again.

The facts in the above case correspond to four Black Chicago youths (Calvin Ollins, Larry Ollins, Omar Saunders, and Marcellius Bradford), who were wrongfully convicted in 1988.

Sarah Burns’ Academy Award nominated documentary, The Central Park Five, helped give the ‘Central Park Jogger’ case national visibility. But while the film commendably provides the perspective of the youthful defendants and their families, it unfortunately presents the case as though it were the result of unique racial and criminal justice peculiarities of New York City in the late 1980s.

The Central Park Jogger defendants, in fact, are among a long series of African-Americans wrongfully convicted of sexual assaults against whites.

Just to name some examples: In North Carolina, the case of Darryl Hunt (1984) case and the Ronald Cotton (1984) case; New Jersey cases were McKinley Cromedy (1992), David Shephard (1983) and Nate Walker (1974). Possibly the most egregious, among a host of Texas cases, was Timothy Cole (1985) who died in prison before he was exonerated.

In California it was Herman Atkins (1986) and Albert Johnson (1992). In Atlanta, three white women misidentified Calvin Johnson, Jr. (1983) as the rapist, and in Maryland four people misidentified Bernard Webster (1982) as a rapist.

The list continues with countless reports from across the nation about individuals released from prison after serving lengthy sentences for crimes they did not commit.

They are usually referred to as “the exonerated, “the wrongfully convicted,” or victims of a “miscarriage of justice.” While the imprisonment of innocent people is not new, the application of DNA science to criminal investigation has focused increased attention on wrongful conviction.

Disaggregating the wrongful conviction data base illustrates the major role played by sex and racial dynamics.

Brandon Garrett’s major contribution to the field, Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong (2011) reports on the first 250 DNA exonerations in the U.S.

Garret’s study shows that 155 (62 percent) of the 250 cases involved African-American defendants. When Latino defendants are added, the combined percentage goes up to 70 percent.

Garrett notes that these percentages are above and beyond the existing disproportion of Blacks and Latinos behind bars in the US. Moreover, 89 percent of the cases in Garrett’s sample were sex offense cases: that is 68 percent were rape cases and another 21 percent were rape/murder cases.

These are remarkable findings when we consider that only about 10 percent of the prison population has been convicted of sexual offenses.

As Jon Gould and Richard Leo observed in a 2010 review, “[a] common pattern of error is when a white woman is raped by an African American or Hispanic man and unintentionally identifies an innocent person as the perpetrator.”

Rape is a highly intra-ethnic crime, that is, the vast majority of white victims are assaulted by white perpetrators just as Black victims are typically assaulted by Black assailants. However, white victim cases predominate among Black defendants wrongly convicted of rape.

As part of on-going research at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, my colleagues (Shakina Griffith, Carlene Barnaby) and I examined a series of 35 Black defendants wrongly convicted of sexual assaults against white victims.

We found many of the common case features identified in other samples of the wrongly convicted, such as witness mis-identification, coerced forced confessions, flawed “scientific” evidence, and official misconduct.

There were also indications that Black defendants were particularly vulnerable when they faced all-white juries. One of our preliminary conclusions was sexual assault prosecution itself was not a risk factor for wrongful conviction.

Rather, the “stranger rape” cases, as opposed to the “acquaintance” or “date rape” cases, demonstrate the increased risk of wrongful conviction.

Thus, stranger rape cases, especially cross-racial ones, warrant special scrutiny.

These cases produce the most dramatic press and public pressure on police authorities for arrests and convictions. This pressure will yield to reports of arrests and indictments whether those arrested are innocent or actually guilty.

Matthew B. Johnson, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Current and recent members of his wrongful convictions research group are Stephanie Cunningham, Victoria Aderin, Ana Paredes, Jason Lee, Carlene Bobb, Marita Salwierz, and Zomorah Kennedy. Professor Johnson welcomes comments from readers

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