No one know how many of the 2 million men and women locked up in America’s prisons and jails are innocent. But given projections based on DNA exoneration rates and U.S. Department of Justice estimates, the number probably amounts to tens — or even hundreds — of thousands of prisoners.
It’s too easy to forget the innocents who languish behind prison walls. And it’s far too easy for politicians and citizens to dismiss the plethora of criminal justice reforms that are needed to alleviate the grave injustice, and enormous expense, of wrongful convictions.
But stories such as those of Missouri’s George Allen, Jr., who was imprisoned nearly three decades for a rape and murder he didn’t commit, won’t let us forget. The 56-year-old Mr. Allen walked free on Nov. 14, after a judge ruled that St. Louis police had hidden or destroyed evidence, while misleading the mentally ill man into a false confession. Mr. Allen suffers from schizophrenia and was blinded in one eye while serving 29 years of a 95-year sentence.
False confessions — after interrogators coerce, intimidate, and even lie to suspects — are especially prevalent in homicide cases involving juvenile and mentally ill suspects. They were reported in nearly 25 percent of the more than 250 DNA exonerations, the Innocence Project reports.
Eddie Joe Lloyd served 17 years in Michigan prisons for a 1984 murder and rape he didn’t commit, before DNA testing proved his innocence and led to his release in 2002. Before Mr. Lloyd, who was mentally ill, confessed, police fed him facts about the crime that he couldn’t have known. Before his trial, Mr. Lloyd was represented by a court-appointed lawyer who got $150 for pre-trial preparation and investigation.
In another Michigan case, Davontae Sanford, 15 years old and developmentally disabled, confessed to multiple murders, even though the confession was riddled with errors. A hit man, Vincent Smothers, later confessed.
Regular recording of police interrogations — and state laws that require it — would reduce false confessions. Most police agencies that record interrogations say they’re happy with the procedure.
In Ohio, one of the nation’s most comprehensive criminal justice reform packages became law two years ago. Changes made it easier to exonerate prisoners through DNA testing, required the preservation of DNA evidence in serious crimes, provided incentives for recording interrogations in serious crimes, and reformed identification procedures for police lineups and photo IDs.
But more can be done. The state must spend more on indigent defense, and give the Office of the Ohio Public Defender the tools to improve oversight of local indigent defense systems, which are saddled with patronage and inefficiency.
The state should also bolster a new Wrongful Conviction Project run by the Ohio Public Defender. It’s one of a handful of innocence efforts nationwide that are devoted to non-DNA cases, but it is woefully understaffed.
No injustice is greater than sending an innocent man or woman to prison or Death Row, which also leaves the real perpetrators free. It is the responsibility of government, which commits that injustice, to ensure it happens as infrequently as humanly possible.