There are two new reports out Tuesday on race and wrongful convictions that show there were a record number of exonerations in 2016. They also found that innocent African Americans were more likely to be wrongfully convicted than whites, and that they spend more time in prison before exoneration than whites do.
Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson speaks with University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross, who co-wrote one of the studies, and Exonerated Nation founder Obie Anthony (@obieanthony), who spent 17 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
On why exonerations are hitting record numbers
Samuel Gross: “I think the reason is basically that we’re looking more. We’re spending more time investigating cases in which people were convicted of crimes and now there’s new evidence of innocence. There are more innocence projects that are doing this each year. There are more resources devoted to it by other defense attorneys. And especially in the past 10 years, there are an increasing number of conviction integrity units. These are units and prosecutorial officers that are devoted to identifying and, to the extent possible, correcting cases where innocent people were convicted. That said 166 exonerations a year, even 500 exonerations a year, in a country where there are about a million felony convictions every year, and probably thousands — possibly tens of thousands — of convictions of innocent people every year, is still a drop in the bucket. And it remains to be seen whether it will undertake reforms and attempts to address this problem that are commensurate with the size of the problem.”
On Obie Anthony’s exoneration and life after being exonerated
Obie Anthony: “I got exonerated because of the judge found that there was prosecutorial misconduct, there was police misconduct, that there was ineffective assistance of counsel and there ultimately was a miscarriage of justice.”
“It’s been like, you know — for lack of better metaphors, it’s been like a salmon kind of going upstream, trying to, you know, all kind of different obstacles. Technology. Initially trying to find a job. Also, trying to get my identification when I first came home. Also trying to find some help with my PTSD when I came home. There was no services that was in line for me when I came home. It wasn’t like I was convicted of a crime so I didn’t have the privileges of the parole board. And so, after all of those years and after me coming home, only thing that was given to me was someone else’s clothes and the door open for me to walk out into a society which I had no, a lot of information I didn’t have.”
On the realities of DNA exonerations
SG: “I think most Americans think that exoneration is the second word of a two-word phrase that begins with the letters DNA. DNA exonerations have always been a minority of the exonerations. And the reason is pretty straightforward. DNA is extremely useful in cases in which the criminal leaves some type of biological trace evidence — in rape cases, where it’s most often used, semen — that can identify the person who committed the crime. But that’s not true in most crimes. That’s not true and robberies. It’s not true in drug crimes. It’s not true. So where DNA is available, it’s extremely valuable. Also, a lot of the cases where DNA could clear people who were imprisoned years ago before DNA testing was available before trial, have been cleared. And a lot of the others are now getting old or have died or are out of prison for other reasons. So the number of cases where DNA will be available for the types of purposes that it used to exonerate people for ordinary routine sexual assault cases will decrease over time that will be done before trial or it will have already been done.”
On why innocent African-Americans are more likely to be wrongfully convicted than whites
SG: “The reason is well-known. Everybody is better at identifying strangers of their own race than identifying strangers of other races. And that’s especially true of whites in this society then as compared to African-Americans, because whites like myself are a majority. So we may spend our entire life with relatively little contact with African-Americans and therefore not be able to distinguish African-Americans from each other. But African-Americans, by necessity, have to deal with whites all the time because we’re the great majority in the country. That’s a well-known problem, and it explains why a very small sliver of the rape crimes that are committed in the United States — crimes in which black men attack white women — account for 50 percent of the exonerations in which eyewitness identification was an issue.”
On PTSD in prison
OA: “I get a chance to go around and talk to kids at different universities and colleges, and I’ll explain to them that, you know, for 17 years of my life, I had to get up for breakfast and go to chow hall. And every time I walked out of that door, I had to be concerned whether or not if my neighbor or a guy down a tier was going to try to assault me or stab me. And that was my going to breakfast and going to dinner every day, whenever I came out of the cell, and I asked him, ‘You know, did you think about some harm happening to you when you got out of your bed to go down to the kitchen to get something eat?’ And it’s that sort of trauma, that sort of stress that’s on a person’s mind every single day, of self-preservation. How do I keep myself safe and secure in here knowing that I’m innocent and I’m surrounded by all of these different types of individuals? From manipulators to connivers, and like, all of these individuals who seek to try to do harm to those individuals who they see weakness in. And it was a difficult environment.”
On policy changes
SG: “The first policy reform would be for the police to do what they’re supposed to do and not cut corners, not deal with cases as casually as they sometimes do, and especially not do that in a manner that discriminates on the basis of race.”
OA: “It has to do with white privilege. Until individuals begin to start recognizing that there is a white privilege that is attached to, not only to the criminal justice system, but how it operates and how it treats those — not only guilty, but those who are innocent as well — the people as a whole. And when we recognize that there is a privilege that is attached to those individuals and how they utilize it and how they exact their authority upon individuals such as myself and other individuals that’s around us. And we need not only to make awareness of it, but we need to be assertive and take action. You have honorees who go around and advocate for reform. I myself advocate for reform. There’s a law in the state of California called Obie’s Law because of my avocation. Also in the state of California, because of my advocacy work, there’s a law that was put in place to hold prosecutors accountable who knowingly and willfully withhold evidence against the innocent and it’s a felony in the state of California because of that.”