Nothing seems to be more tragic than the suffering of an innocent in our culture. When watching the news, it is nearly impossible to restrain your frustration when hearing about the senseless murder of beautiful, little children. But what does that mean for innocent people who don’t necessarily look the part of the guiltless victim?
316 people have been exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing, and the reexamination of cases have shown that 1,304 wrongfully convicted inmates have spent time in prison- both on death row and on non-death row- as of 2013. Most cases that involve wrongful convictions surround the issues of rape and murder, which receive more attention, and are typically solved through plea bargains with little formal evidence presented. That means that those who are accused of these felonies usually have less time in trial to present evidence that could prove their innocence due to the impending sentence that could be much worse than the deal offered through plea bargaining.
And some of these humans who were wrongfully convicted were victims of civil rights issues. In recent news, after 15 years in prison for a murder he did not commit, Jabbar Collins made a $3 million settlement with the state of New York over his exoneration and currently has a suit pending about civil rights that were broken during his case. This settlement also comes on the heels of seven other Brooklyn men who had their convictions vacated due to civil rights issues or other mistakes made during their trials.
Collins was convicted in 1994 for the murder of a rabbi, and always expressed innocence, but was not able to prove his innocence until after a decade of requesting appeals and interviewing witnesses from behind bars. And although he was eventually vindicated, those years stuck in a six by eight foot cell were lost to him all because mistakes made by the prosecution.
Now obviously the prosecution cannot fully be blamed due to the fact that during the time that most of these wrongful convictions were made, the police forces did not have the resources utilized today (i.e. DNA testing or double-blind procedures in line-ups to avoid police coercion). But it is important to note that most of the wrongful convictions are heavily rooted in the malicious habit known as bias.
And the film industry has tried to mend this through ventures such as The Shawshank Redemption, where a man wrongfully convicted spends years in prison culminating in an intense escape to freedom. However, the film is not true to reality as Tim Robbins looks the part of the innocent man sent to jail for another man’s indiscretions. In these actual cases, the intimidating appearance of the suspect could have played a part in their conviction. The reason this might be is because films and stories throughout history have painted an image of what a bad guy should look like. At one point or another, African Americans, tattooed, and scarred people were singled out as the antagonist, and these images can sometimes come into play when the police and the victim are trying to find the culprit. Sometimes it’s easier to remember the assailant as more frightening than they were to calm the conscience and let these media norms warp the mind.
In the non-fiction work Picking Cotton by Jennifer Thompson and Robert Cotton, Cotton and Thompson tell their story of how Thompson was so determined to catch her rapist that she wrongfully accused Cotton as her attacker. Cotton ended up spending eleven years in prison before DNA proved his innocence. In the end, however, the two became friends and even worked to protest wrongful imprisonment due to sloppy trials together; Thompson now works with the Innocence Project to help review cases of inmates who claim to be innocent. Nevertheless, their story gives the greatest example for how to deal with this situation. Obviously, forgiveness and atonement are two great factors to the tale, but above all else- and yes this is about to get corny- don’t judge a book by its cover, especially when that cover is painted on by socially incorrect norms.
Image: Excessive Bail