President Barack Obama should be commended for his recent attempts to highlight the inequities of the criminal justice system.
On July 16, he became the first sitting U.S. president to visit a prison, a federal facility in El Reno, Oklahoma. And he has called for the release of people serving long sentences for non-violent drug crimes.
But what about the rest of us, including those serving time for violent crimes—and especially those who might be innocent?
Obama has denounced the “tough-on-crime” policies that have led to mass incarceration. This approach, adopted by lawmakers, police departments and prosecutors, led to disproportionate sentences that have sent some non-violent criminals to prisons for decades.
But the inequity problem does not end with those convicted of drug offenses.
Obama—and the rest of the nation—must come to terms with the reality behind prison walls: The very same tough-on-crime measures have led to inequitable sentences for all forms of crime, including violent felonies involving guns and other weapons.
And then there are those convicted and imprisoned for violent crimes that they did not commit, as police and prosecutors worked under pressure to “win” cases involving violence.
The Innocence Project, a national legal advocacy organization, has had a role in more than 400 cases in which convicted felons have been exonerated by DNA evidence after being wrongfully convicted for the violent crimes of murder or sexual assault. A broader count of wrongful convictions by the National Registry of Exonerations reveals that more than 1,200 individuals have been exonerated after violent crime convictions.
There are many examples of lives ruined by such wrongful convictions.
In 1984, Jennifer Thompson, a 22-year-old college student, was raped in her home in Burlington, N.C. She later identified her assailant as Ronald Cotton. A jury convicted Cotton and sentenced him to life plus 54 years after hearing Thompson's convincing (mis)identification. After serving 10 ½ years, Cotton was exonerated by DNA evidence.
Thompson, remorseful about her error, forged a friendship with Cotton, and they wrote a book about the case.
An equally heartbreaking example comes from Lubbock, Texas, where a college student named Timothy Cole was convicted for a 1986 sexual assault on a female student, Michelle Mallin. On multiple occasions Cole was (mis)identified by Mallin as her attacker, and Cole was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Cole died in 1999 from an asthma attack in a Texas prison, several years after a man wrote a letter to authorities saying that he, not Cole, had attacked Mallin. The confession was ignored for years, but in 2009 Cole was cleared posthumously after DNA testing confirmed that other man's account.
Like Thompson in the Cotton case, Mallin became an advocate for innocents convicted due to witness misidentification, a factor in more than half of all wrongful convictions.
“At least 80,000 prosecutions in this country every year rely largely on eyewitness testimony,” writes Steven Duke, a Yale Law School professor, in a 2006 article for the Hartford Courant, titled “Eyewitness Testimony Doesn't Make It True.”
“If only half of those result in convictions, we may still be sending to prison nearly 5,000 innocents annually, based on false eyewitness testimony,” he added.
Fortunately, people like Cotton and Cole had DNA evidence to assist them in overcoming their miscarriage of justice. What about those who don't have DNA? If the president has a desire to truly reform America's broken criminal justice system, he cannot seek to fix one area and leave the other—equally broken—as is.
DNA testing has clearly illustrated the weakness in eyewitness convictions, and the president should call for reforms that would decrease—if not completely eliminate—these costly errors.
Recalling the days of his youth when he experimented with drugs, Obama said “the grace of God” had saved him from landing in a prison like El Reno.
DNA was the grace that exonerated Cotton, Cole and hundreds of others. Yet untold numbers of innocent men and women remain locked up, many as a result of witness misidentification. Obama should include them in his criminal justice reforms.
Jeremy Busby was a staff writer for The Echo, a prison newspaper, before the Texas Department of Criminal Justice shut it down. He is serving a 75-year sentence for a 1998 homicide in Dallas. He claims he was wrongfully convicted as a result of witness misidentification and ineffective defense counsel. Busby submitted this commentary through TCR contributing editor David J. Krajicek, who has been looking into his case. Busby's website is justiceforjeremy.net. He welcomes comments from readers.