List of wrongful convictions growing

2013 record year for exonerations from prison, report finds

Jenny Wilcox and Robert Aldridge were imprisoned in a bogus child molestation case in Huber Heights in the mid-’90s.

Clarence Elkins was wrongfully convicted in 1999 of raping and killing his mother-in-law and raping his niece.

They are all part of a small but growing club of men and women who were wrongfully convicted, imprisoned and later set free when the cases against them came unraveled. Jamison, 53, of Cincinnati, is one of one of three Ohio exonerees who walked off Death Row.

He hasn’t been back even to visit friends in the nearly nine years since he was freed.

“They know I’m out here fighting for them but I ain’t been to visit nobody because I wouldn’t do that to myself — go back,” he said. “I don’t ever want no door to lock behind me unless I lock it.”

Nationwide, more exonerations are coming to light. The National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of the law schools at the University of Michigan and Northwestern University, reported that there were at least 87 exonerations last year — a record. On average, those 87 Americans spent 12 years in prison before being cleared.

University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross said cases are added to the registry as they become known through various channels — a hodge-podge process that is far from comprehensive. He expects more 2013 exonerations will be added yet this year.

“How many are out there to find that we don’t know about? Beats me. We are pretty much operating at capacity,” Gross said.

Dewey Jones of Cleveland is the most recent Ohioan to join the exoneree registry. After serving 19 years for murder, prosecutors dropped the charges against him when DNA tests on key evidence pointed to another man and excluded Jones.

While most attention goes to cases in which DNA evidence clears the innocent inmate, 80 percent of the 87 exonerations from last year happened in cases without DNA, according to a report Gross and his colleagues published last week. Of those 87 known exonerations, 27 came in cases where no crime occurred, 15 came where the defendant pleaded guilty and one-third of the exonerations were obtained as a result of or with cooperation of law enforcement.

“It’s easier to get cooperation from law enforcement now in general than it was 10 or 15 years ago but that doesn’t mean it’s always true,” Gross said. There are some 18,000 police forces across the nation so generalizations are    hazardous, he said.

DNA testing has both helped and hurt some cases, said Martin Yant, a Columbus-based private investigator who specializes in exposing wrongful convictions.

“Some prosecutors are more cooperative with DNA testing, but will double down if DNA isn’t available,” Yant said. Despite 2013 being a record year for exonerations, they are still exceedingly difficult to obtain, he said.

Yant worked to free Wilcox and Aldridge, and he helped to overturn the conviction of Elkins, who was freed after his niece — the only witness against him — recanted her story, and DNA tests pointed to a neighbor’s boyfriend as the assailant. Elkins later won a $5.25 million settlement against the city of Barberton.

The National Registry of Exonerations began collecting data two years ago and has documented 1,304 exonerations since 1989. Among those 1,304: 92 percent were men, 47 percent were black, 40 percent were white, 28 percent included DNA evidence and 11 percent pleaded guilty. As a group, the 1,304 exonerees spent nearly 12,500 years in prison because of wrongful convictions.

The bulk of the cases — 975 — had the criminal charges against them dismissed by the courts while 169 were acquitted during retrials and 106 received pardons.

Gross said the top factor leading to wrongful conviction is false accusation and perjury. Jamison agrees, saying jail house snitches trade misinformation for leniency in their own cases.

“From Cincinnati to Cleveland, when a person catches a case, they’ll lie and say anything to get a break,” he said.

Gross said one study estimates a 3.1 percent false conviction rate in rape and murder cases and other research indicates an error rate of 2.5 percent to 4 percent in death penalty cases. Capital cases get the most review and attention.

The false conviction rate for low level crimes is “just guesswork,” Gross said. “Nobody does the work it takes to exonerate the people who serve just a few weeks in jail and who by the time you hear about them have been out and are trying to get this behind them. We know so little about this that it is really important to keep remembering that ‘We don’t know’ is the dominate answer to almost any question that you ask.”

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