African American Wrongful Convictions Today
March 29, 2013
For Black History Month, I wrote about five historical cases of African Americans wrongfully convicted in the Jim Crow era. In today’s follow up, I’ll examine how contemporary wrongful convictions compare. While triumphant present-day innocence stories are all notable successes, and it’s always remarkable when an innocent person finally gets his or her day of justice to be released from hollowed prison walls, the majority (63%) of those exonerated through DNA evidence are African American.
The presumption of innocence for African Americans throughout the criminal process is still hard-won. Racially biased harassment in poor neighborhoods is an all too common occurrence for African Americans. As adolescents, such constant police pressure leads to a cycle of criminal arrests. Biases against those with criminal records can often lead to suspicion, stops and interrogations.
Thomas McGowan, for instance, was falsely convicted of rape in Dallas, Texas, and exonerated through DNA testing in 2008. McGowan had prior police contact because of a minor traffic violation. McGowan’s mugshot from that arrest was entered into a photo lineup, and he was wrongly identified by the victim. Many Innocence Project clients, having no prior record of committing violent crimes, became suspects because of recurring police contact.
Juvenile African American males are subject to particular scrutiny. In 1989, five black and Latino teenagers aged 14 to 16 were arrested in a racially charged atmosphere, accused in the rape of a white female jogger in New York’s Central Park. After 14 to 30 hours of interrogation, without lawyers present, deprived of sleep, four of the five defendants offered inconsistent confessions as to the crime location and their respective roles in the rape. The juveniles in the Englewood and Dixmoor cases from the Chicago area were strikingly similar injustices. Although DNA testing was done on evidence recovered from the victims before trial in all three cases and did not match to any of the defendants, they were convicted strictly on their confessions and perceived guilt. Post-conviction DNA testing later identified the actual perpetrators. In the end, 14 young black men were wrongfully convicted of crimes committed by only three men.
Some DNA exonerated black men have claimed physical force influenced their confessions. Ronald Jones, who spent eight years on death row and 10 in prison, testified at trial that he asserted his innocence for hours on end and was forced to confess to murder once Chicago police officers started beating him. Dennis Brown testified that one of the police officers pulled out a knife and threatened him as he repeatedly claimed innocence. Brown spent 19 years behind bars.
Inadequate criminal representation also has substantial power to derail justice. Many people of color are forced to rely on public defender services, which are often vastly underfunded. Additionally, spending thousands of dollars on private attorneys is no guarantee of competency. Innocent individuals in the criminal justice system face low odds of proving their innocence.
All-white juries and racial jury biases remain. A 2010 Equal Justice Initiative study on jury discrimination found biases in every state in the United States, particularly in the south. In a number of majority black counties, all-white or almost all-white juries endure. Racially biased use of peremptory strikes to eliminate qualified jurors continues to systematically exclude African Americans and other minorities. Research suggests racially diverse juries bring more balanced views, spend more time deliberating, and are less prone to mistakes.
A mixed black and white jury deadlocked in Julius Ruffin’s first two trials. Ruffin, of Norfolk, Virginia, did not match the description of the assailant in a 1980 rape case. However, in his third trial, peremptory strikes eliminated all of the black jurors, and an all-white jury convicted Ruffin after deliberating for seven minutes. Norfolk had a black population of over 35% in 1980. Ruffin is one of at least 14 black men who were convicted by all-white juries and later proven innocent through DNA.
In each of the 14 cases, the defendant was marked guilty because of a cross-racial rape or murder of a white female victim. Similarly, cross-racial eyewitness identifications proven erroneous by DNA testing sent 81 black men to prison.
Wrongful convictions for drug arrests and other non-violent crimes are more difficult to prove than cases involving DNA evidence, but almost certainly no less prevalent. Despite the fact that white people are more likely to use illegal drugs, black people are arrested and incarcerated at much higher rates. Many plea bargain to lesser sentences in spite of innocence. In 1999, 39 African American defendants were arrested in a drug sting in Tulia, Texas. All-white juries, based on a single police informant, convicted 11 defendants to long prison terms. The remaining defendants entered plea deals. None of the accused had any drug dealing backgrounds. Informants in Hearne, Texas, and Mansfield, Ohio, also falsely convicted many other blacks on drug charges.
Finally, prison facilities are rampant with violence, poor medical care and poor diet—conditions that are often aggravated by racism since the majority of guards are white and the majority of prisoners are people of color. Perhaps not coincidentally, both of the DNA exonerated who died in prison were black. Tim Cole, of Texas, died 13 years into his prison sentence of a preventable asthma condition a decade before DNA testing posthumously exonerated him. Frank Lee Smith, who was serving 14 years on Florida’s death row, died in prison of cancer in 2000, 11 months before DNA testing posthumously proved his innocence and identified the real perpetrator.
Though times have changed, and racial biases are no longer as overt as they were in the Scottsboro Boys days, the criminal justice system is still marked by racial injustice and the discrimination still manifests itself in similar ways—through racial profiling, police misconduct, indigent defense, jury selection and more. Wrongful conviction cases reveal these biases well— both in individual cases and systemically.