Doing Time for Committing No Crime

I suppose there’s never a good time to be wrongfully imprisoned, but now is as close to good as it gets. Friday, Michael Anthony Green walked out of prison a free man after 27 years. Green is now the longest-serving inmate to be exonerated in Texas. He was wrongfully convicted of rape in 1983. I did a cursory google search for Green’s name after hearing about his story on the radio yesterday. There were actually two results for his name and the key words, “exonerated on rape charges,” one was for the Texas case, Michael Anthony Green, and another was for Anthony Michael Green, of Ohio. Both are African-American men wrongfully imprisoned for decades on rape charges. I find this coincidence highly disturbing. I hope you do, too.

The examples of gross delays of justice aren’t limited to those with variations on the name Anthony Michael. Two of the stories on the July 24 front page of the Houston Chronicle addressed men wrongly convicted of heinous crimes. One man, Allen Wayne Porter, spent 19 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit. The other man, Cameron Todd Willingham, was executed in 2004 for the deaths of his own children based on evidence that is now being called “flawed science” by the state commission investigating the contentious conviction.

It’s about time.

Willingham’s case first caught my eye with this excellent article in The New Yorker from September 2009. It then enraptured me with this heart-wrenching article in Texas Monthly, which is well-worth the free account you have to make to read it.

Willingham was executed in 2004 for allegedly setting fire to his home, killing his three young children two days before Christmas in 1991. He maintained his innocence throughout his incarceration and refused to enter in a plea bargain to reduce his punishment to life in prison.

A year after Willingham’s execution, the Forensic Science Commission was created by the Texas Legislature to investigate “scientific negligence and misconduct.” When the commission investigated Willingham’s case, and that of another Texas death row inmate exonerated for arson, Ernest Willis, renowned arson expert Craig Beyler found that neither fire had been set intentionally. Willis and Willingham were both innocent of the crimes they were accused of committing. But Willis walked out and Willingham never will.

If you haven’t heard about this case before, there’s a good reason. Governor Rick Perry doesn’t want you to. On Sept 30, Perry effectively halted the official release of the commission’s findings. He replaced the chairman of the commission with Williamson County district attorney John Bradley, a Perry appointee in 2001. Among Bradley’s first tasks as chairman? Canceling the scheduled meeting between Beyler and the commission. Finally, on Friday, July 23, the commission was allowed to rule on the issue. While they didn’t find Deputy Fire Marshal Manuel Vasquez and Corsicana Assistant Fire Chief Douglas Fogg negligent or guilty of misconduct, they did agree that state and local arson investigators (ie Vasquez, Fogg) used flawed science to determine the blaze was the result of arson.

How ironic that Vasquez and Fogg are spared the guilty verdict that Willingham was not. Official rulings aside, their findings still led to what is all but certainly the death of an innocent man.

I know the old saying that prison is full of “innocent” people. Of course nearly all inmates claim innocence. But what about the ones that really are? I’m not talking about crazy, hair-brained conspiracies on Prison Break. I’m talking about plain-and-simple, wrong place at the wrong time. Mistaken identity. False evidence. Just bad luck. One-hundred and thirty-eight times on death row they got the wrong man. And those are just the exonerations that have been proven so far. Rarely is there a 100 percent success rate in anything, so it is not a stretch to say that innocent people have been executed. It’s the most logical conclusion, actually, given the circumstances of 138 proven cases. The numbers spike even further for wrongful convictions not resulting in death row, 255 for post-conviction DNA exonerations.

Given the fact that the US has 2.3 million people behind bars, less than 500 wrongful convictions seems like almost nothing. Except when you remember these are people. American citizens who have spent decades locked up for crimes they didn’t commit. And those are the lucky ones. Some, like Willingham, were executed. When you can’t trust the evidence, a conviction beyond a shadow of a doubt is impossible. The death penalty as carried out in our fair land is anything but just. In light of these exonerations, and the most recent ruling in the Willingham investigation, the use of the death penalty should be suspended in the U.S. Once a better method of collecting and interpreting evidence is developed, the court can reevaluate the use of capital punishment. It won’t be an easy, cheap or fast process. Many may lose their jobs or election seats, but at least none of the casualties of the legal process will be an innocent life.