Shedding light on our scandalous false convictions record

Rich Pedroncelli/ AP
Detainees wait in a cell for an appearance in Sacramento County Superior Court in Sacramento, Calif., on Nov. 1, 2016. 

On Feb. 22 Reynaldo Munoz became the 3,000th incarcerated person whose U. S. criminal conviction was thrown out after it was determined that he had been falsely convicted. That is 3,000 known miscarriages of justice since the National Registry of Exonerations began tracking them in 1989. It is a staggering figure, but the real total is undoubtedly much higher.

The Registry reports that these 3,000 men and women who were falsely convicted spent a total of more than 25,000 years behind bars.

Countless more remain behind bars, despite the efforts of groups like The Innocence Project to free the victims of miscarriages of justice.

Research suggests that around 2 percent of currently incarcerated people are actually innocent.

Most of those cases, and the names of the people who suffered such horrible injustices, are unknown to the American people. We don’t know their stories or the systemic problems responsible for what happened to them. This anonymity is understandable given how common exonerations have become — and how hard it can be to ferret out the true stories of people locked away behind bars.

Breaking through that anonymity and ignorance is essential if we are ever to face up to and address this national scandal. A few people have taken up this important work. They try to turn statistics into stories. Their work makes the human consequences of law’s mistakes and injustices real to the rest of us.

Munoz’s case was unusual because it was covered by USAToday. But it made news only because of the happenstance and startling significance of his being the 3,000th exoneree. We need to ask about the fates of so many others, but Munoz’s story can still serve as an exemplary case in how criminal justice can go horribly wrong.

His nightmare saga began when he was arrested in Chicago in 1985. At the time, he was 16 years old. To be sure, Munoz had his flaws as a young man, and at the time of his arrest, he was a member of an infamous gang, the “Insane Unknowns.”

Munoz was charged with shooting two young men, one of whom died from his wounds. While in custody Munoz was subject to hours of grueling questioning and reportedly beaten by Reynaldo Guevara, a detective known for his desire to clear crimes, regardless — apparently — of whether the person he incriminated was actually guilty.

Even that did not elicit a confession. Eventually Munoz was put in a lineup and identified as the shooter by the surviving victim. He was convicted of murder and attempted murder and served 30 years of a 60-year sentence before being paroled.

Munoz, who insisted throughout his ordeal on his innocence, found a lawyer willing to pursue post-conviction review of his case. That review uncovered police misconduct, including concealing potentially exculpatory evidence found in police reports. That evidence was never shared with Munoz’s original defense lawyers.

The judge who heard this newly uncovered evidence vacated Munoz’s conviction and said “If even a fraction of the allegations included in this new evidence had been presented at trial … Munoz would likely [have] been acquitted.” The prosecutor subsequently dismissed the charges against Munoz, almost 37 years after his arrest.

The Munoz case involved many of the usual elements of wrongful conviction cases, from faulty lineup identification to reckless policing and evidence withheld. The result was justice denied.  

One study found that 28 percent of all exonerations resulted from “mistaken eyewitness identification” of the kind that helped send Munoz to jail. It noted that “lineups and photo arrays can be suggestive and lead a witness to pick the wrong person.”

A shocking 54 percent of false conviction cases involved police or prosecutorial misconduct.

But the public generally does not know these facts — or the extent of the miscarriages of justice to which they lead — because wrongful convictions receive little or no attention, even when they result in an exoneration. Nothing about the people freed since Munoz was released caught the attention of the press or the media. Each was just another name in a long line of people whose lives were turned upside down by a false conviction.

Most of the work now being done to shed light on miscarriages of justice in this country is being done by podcasts rather than by traditional journalists. While there are many true crime podcasts — of the kind spoofed in the Hulu Series “Only Murders in the Building” — only a few have succeeded in using long form interviews and investigations to aid people who should not be behind bars.

To understand the role of podcasts in this work, I talked to Maggie Freleng, one of this country’s most successful podcasters, who is launching a new podcast, “Wrongful Conviction with Maggie Freleng.” She doesn’t need the gig. She has already achieved success with the “Murder in Alliance” and “Unjust and Unsolved” podcasts and has been named an “NPR Next Generation Radio fellow,” and counted in Ford Foundation’s “50 Women Can Change the World in Journalism.”

Freleng told me she was doing her new podcast to deal with the fact that most people know so little about miscarriages of justice. As she put it, there is “so much to be done” to help Americans come to terms with the injustices done in our name. Hers, she said, is a “social justice project.” Freleng argues that podcasts do the work of “humanizing” people in prison and giving listeners “a reason to care.”

Shedding light on wrongful convictions, she contends, requires digging deep and grappling with the systemic problems that lead to the thousands of mistakes that our criminal justice system makes every year. Podcasts, Freleng says, help break through the “everybody behind bars claims they’re innocent” cynicism that surrounds popular discourse about wrongful convictions.

Podcasts offer listeners a chance to hear for themselves the various people interviewed — and like testimony in court, listeners hear not only what is said but how it is said.

But podcasts do more than simply tell the stories of miscarriages of justice. They are, Freleng says, a call to action, a rallying cry for Americans to demand change for those whose stories they tell — and in the system responsible for the more than 3,000 people America has unjustly sent to prison and now set free.

Wrongful conviction podcasts remind us, as Nelson Mandela once said, that “so long as injustice … persists in our world, none of us can truly rest.”

Austin Sarat (@ljstprof) is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. The views expressed here do not represent Amherst College.

Tags criminal justice system exoneration Innocence Project podcast Prosecutorial misconduct Wrongful convictions

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