In reviewing the cases of the 110, all men, the AP found:
Most of the 110 men had been convicted of rape; 24 were found guilty of rape and murder, six of murder only.
Their convictions follow certain patterns. Nearly two-thirds were convicted with mistaken eyewitness testimony from victims and bystanders. About 14 percent were imprisoned after mistakes or misconduct by forensic experts. Nine were mentally retarded or borderline retarded and confessed, they said, after being tricked or coerced by authorities.
About half had no prior adult convictions. Many had never been in trouble before. At least seven had prior convictions for sex crimes. Since being released, 11 have been convicted of new offenses; nine of them were sentenced to prison.
Eleven of the men served time on death row; two came within days of execution.
Slightly more than a third have received compensation.
The men averaged 10 and a half years behind bars. The shortest wrongful incarceration was one year; the longest, 22 years. Altogether, the 110 men spent 1,149 years in prison.
Their imprisonment came during critical wage-earning years when careers and families are built. The average age entering prison was 28. Leaving, it was 38.
Of the cases reviewed by the AP, about two-thirds involved black or Hispanic inmates, roughly reflecting state prison populations' racial makeup.
1. "It destroyed my family," says Vincent Moto, unjustly convicted of rape and imprisoned for 10 and a half years in Pennsylvania. Richard Danziger is even less fortunate. Wrongly convicted of rape and sentenced to life, he suffered permanent brain damage when his head was bashed in by another inmate. Danziger was released in 2001 after he served 11 years in Texas. Now, at age 31, he lives with his sister. One observer said: "The people who come out of this are often very, very severely damaged human beings who often don't ever fully recover."
About 60 percent of the 110 men were helped by the 10-year-old Innocence Project at Cardozo. The project's first DNA releases came in 1989. "All of these people have a certain vulnerability. It may be race, class, mental health issues or personality problems," says Peter Neufeld. "They sort of get caught in this Kafkaesque vortex, and the rest is history."
David Vasquez of Virginia was mistakenly identified by a witness who said he was lurking outside the home of a woman later found raped and murdered. Vasquez, who is borderline retarded, confessed. Four years after his conviction, DNA testing identified the real killer, a serial rapist. "They destroyed his life and mine," says Vasquez's mother.
Neufeld says that the 110 men are the tip of the iceberg. But John Wilson, who heads the Missouri State Crime Lab and has testified as a DNA expert in criminal trials, doubts Neufeld's point. He also says widely available DNA testing has made wrongful convictions less likely in recent years. "The fact is, the majority of the time, the cops are right. It is the right guy." (Query: Is Wilson also saying: "The fact is, 49% of the time, the cops are wrong. It is the wrong guy"? No one can doubt that "the majority" of the time, the cops are right.)
Some of the 110 men have been successful. Mark Bravo graduated from a California law school and plans to start a foundation for people like him. Anthony Robinson just finished his first year as a law student in Texas. Timothy Durham helps run his family's Oklahoma electronics business. Four men have died: two from cancer, one from a heroin overdose and one in a freak accident. Kenneth Waters fell and fatally fractured his skull while walking to his brother's Massachusetts home.
Some 23 men were cleared last year by DNA, compared with six in 1992. The increase has prompted legislation allowing inmates access to DNA testing. Twenty-five states now have such laws, most passed in the last three years.
Meanwhile, the number of inmates asking for genetic analysis grows. The Innocence Project says it has 4,000 requests. The biggest problem, Neufeld says, is racing against time. In three-quarters of the Innocence Project's cases, physical evidence such as hair or blood has been lost, misplaced or destroyed. During a criminal trial, the disappearance of evidence can mean acquittal. After conviction, it can mean losing all chances to prove one's innocence.
When lawyers for Marvin Anderson wanted DNA analysis in 1993, they were told the evidence against him had been destroyed. But a swab containing genetic material was later found, taped to the inside of a lab technician's notebook. It proved Anderson was not guilty.
2. In 1986, Anthony Robinson was picking up a car for a friend at the University of Houston when police arrested him, saying he matched the description that a rape victim had given of her attacker: a black man with a mustache, wearing a plaid shirt. Robinson had a plaid shirt but no mustache, but the victim's identification of him was enough for the jury. He was convicted of rape in 1987 and sentenced to 27 years in prison.
Proclaiming his innocence from the start, Robinson could not prove it until he was paroled in 1997, after a decade behind bars. Then, he worked day-labor jobs to save up for a lawyer and a $1,800 DNA test. The test showed his semen did not match evidence collected from the crime scene, which led the state to conduct its own test, with the same results. He was pardoned in November 2000 by then-Gov. George W. Bush.
Robinson received $250,000 in compensation from Texas, but it could not restore the lost years. At age 40, the college graduate and former Army lieutenant is keenly aware of the opportunities that have passed him by. "Most of my college classmates have gone on to have children and careers. They acquired those things that you do when you're young and ambitious."
3. Three months after the October 1986 rape-murder of a medical student in Chicago, four teens were arrested, the youngest being 14-year-old Calvin Ollins. He had no criminal record and repeatedly denied doing anything wrong. But he says police kept telling him his cousin, Larry -- also one of the four -- had implicated him and if he admitted his role he could go home.
So Calvin Ollins confessed. He thought he would be returning to his mother. When that didn't happen, he tried to recant, but it was too late. He, his cousin and two others were convicted. Ollins was sentenced to life. He served nearly 15 years -- more than half his life -- before DNA tests unlocked the prison doors last December. By then, he was a half-year shy of his 30th birthday.
Attorney Kathleen Zellner calls the case "one of the greatest frauds ever perpetrated in a Chicago courtroom." She has filed suit on behalf of the four men, claiming authorities manufactured phony evidence, coerced confessions and falsified lab test results. This February, police announced two men had confessed to the Roscetti murder, and DNA tests linked them to the crime.
4. Facing a sexual assault charge in New York, Lenny Callace rejected a plea bargain that would have freed him. No, he insisted, he was innocent. He went to trial and was convicted and sentenced to State Prison for 25-to 50-years. After being in prison for six years he was exonerated by DNA testing. "The system isn't perfect," acknowledges James Catterson, the former district attorney.
Free at 38, Callace was ecstatic at first, taking a bunch of friends to Atlantic City in a limousine, talking about buying a house. But slowly, his friends and family could see the changes. He got $500,000 from New York for his wrongful conviction, but what wasn't spent on lawyers went to drugs and booze. He was treated for substance abuse and depression. Four years after was exonerated, he died from a heroin overdose.
5. Like a growing number of lawyers who've formed "innocence projects" around the country, Joe McCulloch is learning how tough it is to be a caged man's last hope. The letters flooding his office are filled with spelling and grammar errors; they're usually pleading, sometimes heartbreaking. Files at the Palmetto Innocence Project's office in Columbia, S.C., bulge with such letters, even though it's been around only since December.
Inspired by the successes of the Cardozo Innocence Project, more than three dozen like-minded groups have sprouted around the country in the past decade. These volunteer coalitions are made up of police officers, investigative reporters, defense attorneys, students and professors. The Cardozo group recently launched an Innocence Network to pool resources and share information among the projects.
"We started out with a very simple goal, and that is to walk innocent people out of prison. And what it has evolved into is nothing less than a new civil rights movement in this country," says Peter Neufeld. Most groups will take only cases in which the inmate claims actual innocence, not self-defense or some other mitigating circumstance. Some states have appropriated money to fund these efforts, but most innocence projects rely solely on private donations and volunteer labor.
The Second Look Program at Brooklyn Law School takes only non-DNA cases. All 11 people exonerated through the Innocence Project Northwest in Seattle were in cases that involved no genetic material.
"The DNA cases have been really important for the innocence projects, because they establish innocence with such scientific certainty," says the co-director of the Innocence Project at the University of Wisconsin School of Law. "But beyond that, they have opened people's eyes and given a new legitimacy to claims of innocence, even where there is no DNA."
6. William Gregory served seven years of a 70-year sentence before DNA evidence ruled him out as the rapist in two Kentucky attacks. Now middle-aged, he is one of the oldest men starting over after being wrongfully imprisoned and freed by science. "Financially, it destroyed my life," Gregory says. "At 54 years old, you don't have anything to fall back on. Companies are skeptical about hiring someone who is 54 years old." He has received no compensation from the state, but he's suing the city of Louisville for $35 million.
7. An Associated Press news item ("More Than Three-Dozen `Innocence
Projects' Cover Nearly Every State") contains a list of "Innocence Projects"
around the United States, groups which review evidence to determine whether
inmates were unjustly convicted.
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