Guest Contributor: Brian Howe
On March 24, 2018, more than five hundred men and women marched through Memphis Tennessee. Most of them had spent a large part of their lives in prison– a combined 3,501 years among them– for crimes they did not commit.
The march was the closing event for the 2018 Innocence Network conference, a gathering of exonorees and lawyers working on behalf of those wrongfully convicted. Exonorees came from every state in the country and from countries across the globe. They marched with attorneys and advocates and family. They held signs demanding change in the system that had wronged them. Demanding accountability. Demanding, at least, public recognition that innocent men and women were being arrested and convicted by agents acting on the public’s behalf.
Just days before the march, the National Registry of Exonerations at the University of Michigan released a review of the 139 people exonerated in 2017. Of them, well over half were initially convicted as the result of official misconduct, such as officers threatening witnesses, lab analysts falsifying results, or exculpatory information being withheld at trial. This misconduct is statistically more likely to occur in wrongful convictions involving black defendants.
In the face of this challenge, reform has often been frustratingly slow. Only a handful of states have reformed their laws to allow for new trials based on faulty science. In most states, the legal barriers to obtaining a new trial based on official misconduct are almost insurmountable. And when exonerations do happen, many states will not provide any compensation for the years or even decades the exonoree lost in prison.
The march in Memphis ended at the Civil Rights Museum— the spot where, almost 50 years earlier to the day, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The museum includes a replica of the cell where King wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Projected on the cell wall is a quote from that letter: “…the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”
The men and women marching in Memphis are living proof that Americans cannot value “order” in the current criminal justice system while faulty procedures continue to put innocent people in prison. Exonerations are not proof that, given time, the criminal justice system eventually works. The men and women marching in Memphis were not freed by post-conviction mechanisms that inevitably produce just results and correct mistakes. They are only free by luck and happenstance. In some cases, a new witness happened to come forward. In others, a new test became available and the original evidence survived to be tested. For some, police reports that were hidden during their conviction happened to be found.
Every exoneration is exceptional. Wrongful convictions are routine. For every man and women exonerated, many more remain behind in prison.
In response to criticisms that direct action was ineffective and counterproductive, Dr. King denied that direct action was the true source of tension:
“We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
Our criminal justice system will not be truly just until we correct the systemic prejudices and errors that produce wrongful convictions. And we cannot correct the problem until it is fully acknowledged. The March in Memphis was one small but valuable step towards that goal.
Brian Howe is currently a staff attorney at the Ohio Innocence Project (OIP) and professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Law. Click here to learn more about OIP.