The struggle for justice doesn’t end with the ones we know about. The struggle is for all those who came before the ones we know about and the ones who will come after.
According to Barbara O’Brien, Michigan State law professor, there is no longer any doubt that innocent people are sent to prison on a regular basis. Unfortunately, the vast majority of wrongful convictions are never discovered.
Fortunately, our society is shifting in its perception of the criminal justice system, largely through literature and cinema that is awakening the American psyche to see the patterns of injustice. Books like The New Jim Crow by civil rights attorney and Stanford Law School professor Michelle Alexander and Just Mercy by NYU Law Professor Brian Stevenson are illuminating the ways in which injustice has been designed and perpetuated in the criminal justice system.
Documentaries like 13th and the TV miniseries When They See Us by Golden Globe-winning and Academy Award-nominated director Ava Duvernay give us information, but also help us see the emotional landscape of the experience of injustice by placing us in the shoes of the person or people experiencing injustice.
Serving the cause of helping wrongfully convicted people get out of prison is similar to helping people escape from slavery. It’s a commitment to abolishing systems of injustice, and it is no small task.
What people often don’t realize is that the situation that mobilized Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a sixteen-year-old drummer and grocery delivery boy named Jeremiah Reeves. In 1952, Reeves was having a consensual relationship with a white woman customer. When their relationship was discovered, she screamed rape. Jeremiah was brought to the Kilby prison. Law enforcement officials strapped him to an electric chair and threatened to electrocute him unless he admitted to the rapes of white women that summer. He confessed under duress and was later convicted. He was executed on March 28, 1958 at twenty-two years of age. Sadly, this is not the only case of its kind involving false accusations against black defendants and unjust treatment by the criminal justice system.
Here are some statistics as of 2017:
1. Of the 367 DNA exonerations to date, 61 percent are black, according to the Innocence Project. A DNA exoneration happens when evidence of a crime is submitted for DNA analysis, which wasn’t available at the time a crime was committed, and conclusively proves that a convicted person was not guilty of the crime.
2. Black exonerees spend an average of 10.7 years in prison before release, compared to 7.4 years for white exonerees, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
3. Of the 164 convicts who survived Death Row—which meant they were in the long process of being executed—84 are black, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
4. Innocent black people are seven times more likely than innocent white people to be convicted of murder, according to the National Registry of exonerations.
5. Innocent black people are more likely to be convicted and receive harsher sentences for sexual assault than innocent white people, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
6. Black people are twelve times more likely to be wrongfully convicted for drug felonies than white people, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
7. Of the 2,364 exonerations, almost 50 percent of the convicted individuals were black. That’s nearly four times the percentage of the population of black people in America.
Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, describes a continuum stretching from slavery to lynching to mass incarceration and the death penalty. In the 1930s and 1940s, in reaction to a strong anti-lynching movement, white racists switched their strategies: They decided to stop lynching black people from trees and to lynch them in the courtroom instead.
The statistics bear out this history. Being wrongfully convicted is a nightmare you can’t wake up from. One normal reaction is to get angry, which can prompt an innocent convict to take action. That’s a good thing. But it becomes bad when the anger turns into bitterness, rage, and psychological dysfunction.
And what about our reaction to discovering that this injustice exists? We should be furious about the situation, but not derailed by it. Let’s focus on actionable items.
What Can Be Done:
Decide to donate your time and/or financial resources to one of the organizations that work to free innocent convicts. See the list under resources.
1. The Innocence Project (www.innocenceproject.org)
Exonerations to Date: 367
Founded in 1992 by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld at Cardozo School of Law. Their work is to exonerate wrongly convicted people through DNA testing and to ultimately reform the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.
2. The University of Chicago Law School Exoneration Project (https://www.law.uchicago.edu/clinics/exoneration and https://www.exonerationproject.org/)
Exonerations to Date: 15.
Focuses on cases involving convicted men and women who claim to be, and we believe to be, innocent of the crimes for which they stand convicted. In this course, students work on actual post-conviction litigation representing individuals who are asserting their innocence as well as advancing related claims associated with their wrongful convictions.
3. The Center on Wrongful Convictions (law.northwestern.edu/legalclinic/wrongfulconvictions/)
Exonerations to Date: 40+
Dedicated to identifying and rectifying wrongful convictions and other serious miscarriages of justice. To date, the Center has exonerated more than forty innocent men, women, and children
from states around the country, and it receives thousands of inquiries a year. The
CWC also houses some of the nation's leading legal experts on false confessions and police interrogations and has helped exonerate more than twenty false confessors.
4. The NYU School of Law Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law
Works to highlight and dismantle structures and institutions that have been infected by racial bias and plagued by inequality. Coordinates curricular development and serves as a resource for faculty whose teaching or scholarship addresses subjects related to race, ethnicity, and inequality. The Center also encourages public conversations with stakeholders, affected communities, thought leaders, advocates, and students; shapes policy, engages in multifaceted advocacy, and provides training on issues of race and inequality; and leverages the collective power of partnerships with a diverse array of allies committed to progressive social change. With a foundation in New York City, deep connectivity to the world of practice, and a global perspective, NYU School of Law is ideally suited to developing a center to examine and address issues of race, inequality, and the law using a multi-disciplinary approach.