Let’s say you were accused of a serious crime you did not commit. You have no witnesses for your alibi, but the police have several eyewitnesses against you. You vow to fight the charges in court even though you have no money and will have to rely on a public defender. The day before you are to head to trial and face a possible 10-year conviction, the prosecution offers you a deal. Plead to a lesser charge and you’ll be out of prison in 6 months with good time credit and parole. You’ll be a convicted felon, but you’ll be incarcerated for less than a year. Do you take the deal and plead to a crime you did not commit? Or do you risk losing it all in a jury trial and facing a mandatory decade stretch in the can if you lose?
In 1988, an elderly woman, out for a walk, was killed in Rochester, N.Y. The crime remained unsolved. Frank Sterling became a suspect and was interrogated alone, without a lawyer. He was 25 years old at the time and had no criminal record. He readily waived his Miranda rights. He was already tired from a 36-hour-long trucking job shift, and the interrogation started at 7 a.m. and continued for 12 grueling hours.
To try to get more out of him, an investigating officer used a hypnotic-type “relaxation” technique, in which he laid down beside Sterling, held his hand, and they breathed deeply. Three crucial details about the murder would emerge from these interrogation sessions: The location of the murder; the victim’s clothing; and the fact that there was a bb gun found at the scene. For example, during the “relaxation technique,” Sterling for the first time supposedly told the officer that the victim was wearing “a purple top, maybe two-toned, and dark pants.”
Unfortunately, Frank Sterling didn’t do the crime, even though he paid the time. He was later exonerated because of DNA testing, but he still wasted 18 years and nine months in prison for a crime he did not commit.
Here’s another chilling example of injustice in the justice system:
John Willis was charged with committing a string of five armed robberies and rapes. The crimes occurred between 1989 and 1990. Based on eyewitness identification, Willis was convicted of two of the 1990 crimes. The crimes occurred about one block from each other in Chicago, Illinois.
In the first case, the victim was attacked and raped orally. She spat the assailant’s semen into a toilet paper wrapper that was recovered by police. As he went to trial in 1991, Willis’s defense and the prosecution both requested that testing be performed on the wrapper, which was tested at the Chicago Police Department’s Serology Unit. Conventional serological testing on the wrapper revealed that Willis was excluded as a contributor to the stain. These results, however, were never supplied to the defense. Instead, laboratory technician Pamela Fish reported the tests as inconclusive. The actual results of her testing were not turned over despite specific requests from the defense.
Willis was convicted in 1992 of this crime.
If you aren’t aware of The Innocence Project, you should be, because that service is the hope of last resort for those who have been wrongfully convicted:
Q. What is the Innocence Project? How did it get started?
A. The Innocence Project is a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.
The Innocence Project was founded at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in 1992, and became an independent nonprofit organization (still closely affiliated with Cardozo) in 2004. Since the organization’s founding, more than 250 people have been exonerated through DNA testing in the United States, including 17 who were at one time sentenced to death. In most of these DNA exonerations, the Innocence Project either was the attorney of record or consulted with the defendant’s attorneys. Our unique combination of science, law, and social justice has created a cohesive and powerful program for individual freedom and policy reform.
DNA can’t always rescue the innocent, but it’s a good and verifiable start to unchaining the links forged in a wrongful guilty verdict.
The police are tasked with solving crimes and prosecutors are paid to punish people for those crimes — but if you’re in the wrong place at the right time, or if you are feeble-minded and too agreeable — your innocent end can wind you up behind bars facing a future you did not deserve or earn.