Ruben “Hurricane” Carter is perhaps one of the best known exonerees, having had his story presented by Bob Dylan in the form of song and by Denzel Washington in the form of a feature motion picture. On Sunday, Ruben Carter died at the age of 76. He spent 19 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, despite maintaining his innocence, and he was free for the last 28 years of his life after a federal judgment dismissed charges against him on the grounds of prosecutorial misconduct.
The timing here was ironic, because it came just two days after I attended yet another march for Ajay Dev, who in 2009 was sentenced to 378 years in prison. As I have written before, I did not start out a believer in Ajay Dev’s innocence. I had not seen the trial, though I was troubled at his sentencing by the enormity of the 378-year sentence and the disproportionality of his crime to the time he would serve.
I was troubled at the notion of such a long sentence for a conviction that was really based on two very thin pieces of evidence. First, the alleged victim’s testimony, which even the jurors acknowledged was difficult to swallow, and second, the ambiguity of the pretext phone call.
It was not until I read the appellate brief where the missteps, mistakes and outright misconduct of both the judge and deputy district attorney were laid out for all to see. Judge Fall mishandled the pretext phone call and translation, lost his patience, and made the ridiculous legal ruling allowing the victim herself to act as a quasi-court appointed expert on translations.
The bottom line is, without the pretext phone call, it is difficult to see how the conviction stands, though the Attorney General somehow attempts to dismiss its importance and argue that the totality of the evidence would still be sufficient to convict Ajay Dev.
What really starts to trouble one is looking at some of the cases – rare as they are – where there is just enough evidence to exonerate the innocent.
It took Ruben Carter 19 years and two separate trials before he was free. Maurice Caldwell was exonerated after 20 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. Obie Anthony was released after 16 years. Franky Carillo spent 19 years in prison. John Thompson spent 14 years on death row and several other years in prison.
Michael Morton spent 25 years in prison before he was exonerated in a case in which the prosecutorial misconduct was so bad that the state of Texas actually pursued criminal charges against former prosecutor Ken Anderson.
Last month, Glenn Ford was released after 30 years on death row and Walter Lomax was released last week after 40 years in prison.
As rough as it is to spend twenty, thirty, or forty years of your life in prison for a crime that you did not commit, these individuals are lucky. Carlos DeLuna would be executed by the state of Texas, as would Cameron Todd Willingham, for crimes in which the overwhelming amount of evidence suggests that innocent men were put to death.
In that respect, Brian Banks is fortunate. While pressured to take a plea agreement by his attorney, he would only spend five years in prison. And, once exonerated, he was allowed to attempt to belatedly resume a professional career.
There is an object lesson here and that is that we have to find a different way to handle these cases. An individual accused of committing a crime is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. That is a legal guideline that often seems to be overlooked at the trial phase.
But once that happens, they become guilty until proven innocent. But the more we have learned about exonerations, thanks to the work of the Innocence Project and now the National Registry of Exonerations, the more we need to find a way to prevent innocent people from spending decades of their lives in prison for crimes they have not committed.
Last year, the National Registry of Exonerations recorded 87 for the year. That may not seem like a lot compared to the total number of convictions, but understand, the number is going up – not down.
Trends are changing. The number of DNA exonerations, which used to make up nearly all, has continued to decline slowly for the last decade. By 2013, only one-fifth of all exonerations were DNA-based; the rest involved other issues.
The great majority of exonerations in every year were naturally homicide and sexual assault cases. That is not surprising, given that the length of sentences in those cases prompt the majority of the money and assistance.
However, there is increasing evidence that these are just the tip of the iceberg and the data coming out of the National Registry bears that out. The Registry found, “The proportion of exonerations that do not involve rape or murder has grown over time, from 18% from 1989 through 1998 to 24% from 2009 through 2013. In 2013, 29 exonerations, 33% of the total, did not involve either of these extreme crimes of violence – a record number of exonerations in such cases, and a comparatively high proportion of all exonerations.”
What all of this suggests is that the more than 600 official exonerations is just the tip of the iceberg and that countless numbers of people have spent years of their lives in custody for crimes they have not committed.
In 2011, when Mr. Dev reached his second year in custody, Woodland Daily Democrat Editor Jim Smith was inundated by a survey petition to free Mr. Dev.
He wrote, “I have no sympathy for child molesters. In my book, Ajay was found guilty by a jury after a trial. That decision which is being appealed. That’s how our justice system works. Until that appeal is heard and the jury’s decision is overturned, Ajay is guilty and must do the time as ordered by the judge.”
While Mr. Smith is correct here, that system does not appear to work so well when it takes 20, 30, 40 years for exoneration.
The tragedy of Mr. Dev’s incarceration goes beyond that. Because of the nature of the crime, Mr. Dev has been denied physical contact with either of his two sons, including the youngest one, whom he has never even been allowed to hold.
Think about missing out on the first years of your children’s lives. That’s a very severe and unnecessary punishment.
As we continue to learn more about wrongful convictions, flawed forensics, and prosecutorial and judicial misconduct, we need to figure out a better way to keep those who committed horrific crimes in custody, while protecting the innocent.
The life of Ruben Carter is a tragic one. What we did not see is the impact of his incarceration on his family and supporters, who hung with him as long as he allowed them to.
We don’t want to have to wake up in 20 years to Mr. Dev finally being exonerated.
—David M. Greenwald reporting