We generally encounter wrongful conviction stories one-at-a-time. This article, reprinted at the request of The Forensic Colleges website, focuses on fifteen of the most jaw-dropping exoneration stories on record. The good-but-could-be-better tone of the first paragraph is open to question, but the details that follow speak for themselves.
Miscarriages of justice are sad reminders that the criminal justice system is a good one but far from perfect. Sometimes bad guys go free, and sometimes innocent men and women do time or die for crimes they didn’t commit. When you look at a list like this, some patterns emerge: some confessions are coerced by police, while other convictions are overturned because of advances in DNA technology. But everyone on this list paid a price for something they didn’t do, and that’s a reminder that in the legal system, there’s always room for improvement:
1. Randall Dale Adams
In 1976, Robert Wood of the Dallas Police Department was shot and killed when he pulled a car over. Police first suspected a man named David Ray Harris, but Harris blamed Randall Dale Adams for the killing, and multiple surprise witness in the trial led to Adams’ conviction. He was sentenced to death. However, in May 1979, with just three days to go before his execution, the Supreme Court stayed his execution because of procedural issues with the trial, so Adams’ sentence was commuted to life. In 1985, documentary filmmaker Errol Morris began making The Thin Blue Line, which would come to investigate Adams and reveal further evidence that he was innocent. Adams was set free in 1989, in part because of what the court called malfeasance on the part of the original prosecutor and perjury issues with one of the witnesses. At a later legislative hearing, Adams summed up his journey: “The man you see before you is here by the grace of God. The fact that it took 12 and a half years and a movie to prove my innocence should scare the hell out of everyone in this room, and if it doesn’t, then that scares the hell out of me.”
2. Darryl Hunt
Darryl Hunt was convicted of the 1984 rape and murder of Deborah Sykes in North Carolina, though from the start, racial tensions were present: Hunt is black, Sykes was white, and Hunt faced an all-white jury. Further, there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime, merely testimony from witnesses later proven to be inaccurate. In 1994, DNA technology had advanced to the point where Hunt’s name was cleared in the sexual assault charge, which in turn raised doubts about his involvement in the killing. In December 2003, another man confessed to Sykes’ rape and murder, and the DNA backed up the confession. As a result, Hunt was set free after serving 18 years of his original life sentence. He had always maintained his innocence, and has since become involved with The Innocence Project, a non-profit group that uses DNA testing to help overturn wrongful convictions. The story was retold in the documentary The Trials of Darryl Hunt:
3-6. The Roscetti Four
Lori Roscetti, a medical student was raped and murdered in Chicago in 1986. The young men convicted of the crime came to be known as the Roscetti Four: Omar Saunders, 18, Marcellius Bradford, 17, Calvin Ollins, 14, and Larry Ollins, 16. Bradford agreed to plead guilty and testify against Ollins, and as a result received a 12-year sentence while the other three got life. However, Bradford eventually recanted, saying that his confession and subsequent plea bargain had been forced on him by police. Although forensics at the original trial said that semen found on Sykes’ body could have come from the Ollins brothers, further digging revealed that none of their blood types matched the evidence. In 2001, DNA tech cleared all four men of the crime, and they were released from prison. They all received settlements from the State of Illinois, and Calvin Ollins earned another $1.5 million from the City of Chicago. The proceedings were recounted in a 2002 episode of the radio program “This American Life” entitled “Perfect Evidence.”
7. Kirk Bloodsworth
Kirk Bloodsworth holds an interesting record: He’s the first American sentenced to death whose conviction was overturned through DNA testing. Bloodsworth was convicted of the rape and murder of a 9-year-old Maryland girl, and he maintained his innocence even as several witnesses placed him at the scene. In 1992, while in prison, Bloodsworth read about the emerging practice of DNA testing and how it could be used to help convict or exonerate criminals. When tested against the crime scene evidence, including semen in the victim’s underwear, Bloodsworth name was cleared, and he was set free in 1993. The real killer was located in 2003. Bloodsworth now works with The Justice Project and other groups on behalf of those who have been wrongfully convicted.
8. Martin Tankleff
When he was 17, Martin Tankleff’s parents were murdered and he was arrested for the crime. His conviction was largely aided by a confession written out by a detective that Tankleff rejected and refused to sign. In 1990, he began serving serving his two consecutive life sentences. However, in the following years, he worked hard to protest his treatment and spread word of his innocence. In November 2007, the Suffolk County district attorney was convinced that there had been prosecutorial misconduct in the original trial, and in December of that year, Tankleff’s convictions were overturned. The state later announced it would not seek to retry him, effectively ending his nightmare of wrongful imprisonment after 17 years behind bars. More info here.
9. Darryl Burton
Convicted of a murder he didn’t commit, Darryl Burton served 24 years of his erroneous life sentence before earning his freedom. When a drug dealer was killed in St. Louis in the summer of 1984, Burton was named for the crime by a pair of witnesses angling for lighter sentences on other charges. There was no evidence linking him to the murder, but the testimony was enough to put him away. With help from Centurion Ministries, Burton’s case was eventually brought back up and he was allowed to go free after 24 years.
10. Bill Dillon
Bill Dillon was convicted of murder in 1981, thanks largely to the testimony of a man named John Preston, who used his scent-tracking German Shepherd to link the victim’s bloody T-shirt with Dillon. However, Preston and his dog turned out to be frauds, and were discredited in 1987. Unfortunately, no one started a review process of the cases in which Preston had testified, so it wasn’t until Dillon learned about Preston’s phoniness in 2006 that he started acting on it. He secured a DNA test that exonerated him of the crime, and he was set free after spending 26 years in prison for a crime he always maintainted was committed by someone else.
11. Clarence Brandley
A high school janitor in Texas, Clarence Bradley was convicted of the rape and murder of 16-year-old student Cheryl Dee Ferguson. Brandley, a black man, was sentenced to death for the crime after facing two all-white juries. (The first was declared a mistrial.) Once in prison, his lawyers discovered more evidence that supported his innocence, and civil rights groups raised money to promote his cause and further investigate the killing. Brandley was eventually freed, though prosecutors refused to admit they pursued the wrong man.
12. Glen Edward Chapman
Glen Edward Chapman was convicted of the 1992 killings of Betty Jean Ramseur and Tenene Yvette Conley in North Carolina. However, he was granted a new trial in 2007 when a Superior Court judge learned that detectives had covered up evidence affirming Chapman’s innocence and that one of the detectives had committed perjury in the original trial. Even his original defense attorneys were no good: one was disciplined by the state bar association, and other was taken off another death penalty case to enter alcohol abuse treatment. After 15 years and multiple errors, Chapman was finally sent home a free man. “I’m tired, but not angry,” he said. “I see no need for it.”
13. Thomas Clifford McGowan
When Thomas Clifford McGowan was sent to prison for committing rape and burglary, he maintained his innoncence. The main evidence used to put him away was identification by the victim that turned out to be inaccurate. Thanks to DNA tech, his innocence was proven in 2008, and he was set free after spending 23 years behind bars. “Words cannot express how sorry I am for the last 23 years,” state district judge Susan Hawk told him when he was released.
14-15. Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz
Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz were wrongly convicted in 1988 of the rape and murder of Oklahoma woman Debbie Carter. Williamson, a former minor league baseball player, was suffering from increased mental illness in the 1980s, and though Carter was murdered in 1982, he and Fritz were arrested in 1987 on sketchy premises, including a dream of Williamson’s that was cited as a confession. The evidence against the men also included hair analysis, and the spotty procedure (now known to be unreliable) was used to convict them when it could just as easily have exonerated them. Williamson received a death sentence, despite his mental state, while Fritz received life imprisonment. It wasn’t until April 1999 that the men were freed because of DNA testing. Williamson died five years after in a nursing home, suffering from cirrhosis of the liver. John Grisham wrote about the men in his nonfiction book The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town.