Wrongful Convictions: Is the Tide Shifting?


One winter night in 1990, a Philadelphia barber named Muhammad Don Ray Adams was cutting a neighbor's hair when gunshots rang out a few blocks away. He kept right on barbering; gunshots were just part of the evening soundtrack in North Philly.

But a few hours later, he got word that cops were eyeing him as the gunman. The buzz around the neighborhood was that someone named Don Ray had fired the shots, killing two drug dealers.

Eyewitnesses had described the killer as tall and light skinned; Adams was five-foot-four, dark skinned, stocky and went by “Muhammad.”

The discrepancy seemed to Adams too obvious for anyone to seriously consider him a murderer, let alone a suspect. Yet police arrested him nonetheless and charged him with double homicide.

From then on, Adams' story became tragically commonplace: he waited a year-and-a-half in jail for his day in court, all the while taking for granted that even if police and prosecutors didn't have common sense, a jury of his peers certainly would.

One crucial snag was that Adams was unable to produce the man whose hair he'd been cutting when he heard the gunshots, or the man's brother—who was next up for a trim. They had outstanding warrants and could not be found. The only person who could testify to his whereabouts at the time was his girlfriend.

Nevertheless, Adams thought his case was tight.

It wasn't. The jury found him guilty. A judge sentenced him to life in prison. And Adams became one of countless thousands abducted by law enforcement and sent up the river for crimes they didn't commit.

Something needs to change.

Adams, whose saga is featured in my book, “Stolen Years: Stories of the Wrongfully Imprisoned,” is one of the 1,700 people who have been exonerated in the United States since 1989. Though that number might seem impressive, consider that between 2.3 and 5 percent of men and women currently incarcerated in this country are not guilty of the crimes they were charged. That could put the number of the wrongfully convicted currently locked up time as high as 100,000.

Most of these people will serve their sentences to the end. This may happen because they've given up fighting or, more likely, because their fight is unwinnable for any number of reasons: The evidence was lost or destroyed, the fraudulent accuser refuses to recant, or they can't find a lawyer to take their case.

The Innocence Project, which leads the fight against wrongful convictions, has—along with other groups—called for legislation to reduce the number of innocent people being convicted in the first place.

The good news is the tide is starting to shift. Reforms are slowly but steadily emerging to overhaul the five most common causes of wrongful conviction: false confessions, eyewitness misidentification, improper forensic science, false accusations, and government misconduct.

That last one, government misconduct, is too often the Big Bad Wolf where wrongful convictions are concerned. Prosecutorial misconduct includes withholding exculpatory evidence from the defense, destroying evidence and allowing unreliable witnesses or fraudulent experts to testify. Police misconduct includes coercing false confessions, lying on the witness stand, or failing to turn over evidence to prosecutors.

Such misconduct played a key role in Muhammad Don Ray Adams's conviction. At his trial, a crack addict named Donna Benjamin testified under oath that she saw the defendant pull the trigger. Then, she said, he looked coldly at Benjamin lying sprawled out on the pavement, who was begging, “Don't shoot. Don't shoot. It's me.”

The “It's me” was the knockout punch to his case. It communicated to jurors that Donna and Adams knew each other, that there was no way she might have confused him with someone else. The jury ate it up.

Nearly two decades later, Benjamin confessed that she had lied on the stand in exchange for leniency on a slew of outstanding warrants, mostly for shoplifting. Her recantation became the key to Adams' exoneration—19 years too late.

It needs to stop. But how?

“You need to change the ethic in the prosecutor's office from winning at all costs to what the rules of professional conduct say the prosecutor is, which is a minister of justice,” says Steve Kaplan, an attorney whose client Damon Thibodeaux—also profiled in my book—sat on Louisiana death row for 15 years before he got out.

“I think they all go in with great intentions, but the fact of the matter is they're political animals and they're judged on their wins and losses,” he continued. “So I think you've got to get the politics out of it and you've got to have prosecutors who will say to their people, 'I will not judge you on your wins and losses. I will judge you on the quality of justice you dispense.'”

Easier said than done.

But there has been some movement. Since 2000, eleven states have implemented criminal justice reform commissions that are specifically geared to study wrongful convictions and how to change the system. These states include North Carolina, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Florida, and New York.

It's a small step forward. But in the crusade to keep the innocent out of prison, every step counts.

Reuven Fenton is a staff reporter with the New York Post living in New York City. His book, “Stolen Years: Stories of the Wrongfully Imprisoned,” (Tantor Media) was released in November. Follow the author on Twitter @reuvenfen. He welcomes your comments.

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