Justice Derailed: America’s Legacy of Sentencing the Innocent

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central park 5

Central Park 5 after their release from prison. Courtesy Netflix

In 1996, a 29-year-old African American, Stephen Anthony Pina, was convicted for the 1993 shooting of Keith Robinson in the Mission Hill section of Boston. Misidentification of Pina by an eyewitness was the sole evidence the Commonwealth applied to convict him. Vital exculpatory evidence which could have proven his innocence was also withheld.

Stephen, now serving a life sentence at Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Norfolk, Mass., has strongly maintained his innocence throughout his 27 years in custody. In 2018, new DNA results were discovered that excluded him from the scene of the crime.

Stephen’s story resembles those of the thousands of innocent people who are currently in prison for a crime they did not commit. Those include Rafael Martinez, Raymond Gaines, Jordan Martel Rice, to mention just a few currently housed in facilities of the Massachusetts Department of Corrections (MADOC).

So why do wrongful convictions occur?

Recent studies have indicated that police/prosecutorial misconduct is a key contributing factor. There are valid concerns about investigation and interrogation tactics, particularly those of homicide units that often lead to wrongful convictions.

Official misconduct, perjury and false accusation are leading causes of wrongful conviction, followed by mistaken witness identification and false or misleading forensic evidence.

Of the 2,754 exonerations mentioned earlier, the National Registry of Exonerations reports that about 54 percent of the exonerees were sentenced due to official misconduct or false accusation. Perjured testimony and unreliable witness identification have also led to the conviction of innocent defendants accused of serious crimes such as aggravated assault, arson, burglary, and homicide.

Today, the issue of wrongful conviction resonates on multiple levels with people of color, as they are more likely to be sentenced to prison because they cannot afford competent counsel―let alone meet astronomically high bail amounts.

The practice of prosecuting innocent defendants and sentencing them to prison not only constitutes as a dubious approach to solve a crime, but also serves as a painful reminder of the grim past of slave patrols in the antebellum South who hounded freed slaves.

False sentencing, which is often perpetuated by the negligence of federal, state and local authorities, betrays the confidence and trust that innocent defendants, their family members, and the crime victims have in the justice system.

We must also consider the traumatic and debilitating effect that a wrongful conviction has on the mental health of the victims, their families and even law enforcement officers.  This can include social withdrawal from society, excessive hypervigilance, suppression of emotions, and post-traumatic stress responses.

The psychological aftermath from a false accusation is devastating. Despite being “free,” the exoneree will leave prison burdened by feelings of betrayal, trauma, victimization, and detachment from family.

Equally as troubling to the psyche of these defendants is knowing that they felt coerced into accepting a plea deal and ultimately having to admit their guilt to avoid a longer prison sentence. How can prosecutors in good faith offer plea deals to defendants who they know have not committed a crime in the first place?

The reality is that many of these prosecutors are looking to improve their successful conviction rates even if it means putting innocent defendants in prison.

When innocent citizens suffer from false accusations and unjust sentencing, they are deprived of their liberty, justice and protection under the law. When innocent people are locked up, the real criminals are free and roaming the street with the terrifying potential to commit more crimes.

How can we fight for these innocent convicts?

First, we must increase awareness of this issue. Movies released recently, such as “When They See Us,” based on the Central Park Five case of 1989 in New York City, and ABC’s new series “For Life,” inspired by the true story of Isaac Wright Jr., have brought national recognition of this subject at a time when racial tensions in America have increased and the impact of systemic racism is evident.

There is the story of Timothy Cole, the first person in Texas to be posthumously exonerated and his mother Ms. Ruby Sessions, a school teacher who had to mortgage her home to raise $35,000 required to bond her son out of detention, which is featured on “The Innocent Convicts”, a new documentary film series that examines the causes and aftermath of wrongful convictions in America.

There have also been an influx of stories coming out in the news reporting exonerations of innocent convicts such as Bobby Joe Leaster, Darrell Jones, Sean K. Ellis, Kirk Bloodsworth, Audrey Edmunds, Rev. Victor Rosario, and Anthony Ray Hinton―all of whom had their convictions overturned after serving decades in prison for crimes they never committed.

Stories such as these have stunned the world. They have also highlighted the failure of an inherently tainted and broken justice system that has enabled the widespread incarceration of thousands of innocent citizens in America.

Countries such as The Netherlands and Germany have made significant progress in reducing or ending wrongful imprisonment. Even Canada, who shares the same border with the US, had 23 exonerations in the past 25 years.

Over the same period, America has recorded a staggering 2,708 exonerations.


Ossie Ogorukuwa

The time has come for us to transform our justice system by integrating new ideas and practices, ones that are rooted in fairness and accountability, and are evidence-based so we can prevent wrongful imprisonment. Our law enforcement officials, legislators and judges must do better.

America must do better.

In the immortal words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Wherever people are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, GA; Jackson, MI; or Memphis, TN, the cry is always the same: “We want to be free!”.

Osagie N. Okoruwa, a documentary filmmaker and investigative reporter, has produced a documentary film series titled, “The Innocent Convicts.” A 2021 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Justice Reporting Fellow, he is the Founder/Director of The Innocent Convicts organization, where he oversees investigations into the judicial system. He can be reached at info@theinnocentconvicts.org. 

2 thoughts on “Justice Derailed: America’s Legacy of Sentencing the Innocent

  1. If prosecutors have the “power” to convict …. They should be also granted the power to correct any unjust convictions.

  2. The world is changing for the better. Ten years ago you couldn’t find the words “wrongful” and “conviction” in the same sentence and now it is a topic of widespread media coverage and conversation. Freedom and exoneration for the wrongfully convicted NOW!

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