More Than 1,000 People In State Prisons May Be Innocent

Apr 25, 2017

Experts believe that at least four percent of people in prison or jail didn’t actually commit the crime for which they were convicted.  In Virginia state prisons alone, that means more than a thousand people shouldn’t be there.  Sandy Hausman looks at why wrongful conviction happens, and why a literary celebrity is lending his name to the fight for reform.

As a lawyer and best-selling author, John Grisham knows many people are wrongfully convicted. He'll join Slate's Dahlia Lithwick to host a fundraiser for the Innocence Project at UVA.
Credit UVA

When the door closes behind new inmates, it's  the start of a life lived on prison time, eating whatever low cost food is offered, sleeping and waking in a small confined space usually shared with others.  It’s a grim prospect, especially for those who were convicted of crimes they did not commit.

Joaquin Rodriguez was  sentenced to more than a hundred years for a series of armed robberies he insists were committed by someone else. 

“They didn’t have no evidence, no fingerprints, no video, so I thought they would never convict me of anything.”

He was a teenager back in 1992 – newly arrived from El Salvador.

“They took me to a line-up, and I was the only person that fit the description that the victims gave to police and investigators.”

He was also the only Hispanic kid in the line-up, and witness error is the single biggest cause of wrongful conviction.  At UVA’s Innocence Project, Legal Director Jennifer Givens lists other reasons why innocent people go to jail.

“There is bad science – junk science – that is used against individuals that is not reliable. There are false confessions, coerced confessions.  There is bad police work, prosecutorial misconduct.

Executive Director Deirdre Enright says police and prosecutors are rarely punished for doing a bad job.

“There are no consequences to bad conduct – I mean none!”

Sometimes, Enright adds, innocent people are convicted because they’re poor and can’t afford a lawyer with time and resources to mount a solid defense.

“Virginia is one of the lowest paying court appointments for criminal cases, and what we’ve learned is investigation is our primary cost.  It’s what you spend the most time and money on, and because those lawyers that get paid the least have the least incentive to investigate, the communities that rely on court-appointed lawyers are going to be the ones that get hurt.”

And Givens argues the law in Virginia works against defendants who are not allowed to see what evidence the prosecution has.

“Before someone goes to trial and has to make decisions about a bench trial, a jury trial, whether to plead, they don’t know what information is available to the prosecution.  If defendants were granted more significant and generous discovery during that process, you could probably eliminate a lot of these problems.”

People can, of course appeal, but if that effort fails, Enright says there is little hope that an innocent person will escape punishment.

“No one looks at any of these convictions except for us and the people at the Capital Resource Center, and every time we scour these cases, we find things that no only would have resulted in acquittal, there probably wouldn’t have been a trial.”

The Innocence Project at UVA has more than 600 requests for help, but it can handle no more than a dozen cases a year.

“Undoing a wrongful conviction is far more labor intensive and far more legal  research intensive than doing it in the first place,” Enright adds.

That’s why she, Givens and Shanthi Rajagopalan have organized a fundraiser at the law school, Wednesday evening from 5:30 to 8:30, hosted by one of the nation’s leading writers of legal fiction.

" Our panel is going to be hosted by the best-selling author John Grisham and it’s going to be moderated by Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick. It’s also going to include five exonerees – Robert Davis from Albemarle County, Thomas Hainsworth from Richmond, Michael Hash and Eric Weekly from Culpeper,and Beverly Monroe from Powhatan.”

Admission is actually free, but organizers hope those who attend will be moved to donate at least ten dollars to their cause.