27,200 years: The danger of a false conviction
Since 1989, there have been over 3,200 people exonerated in the United States after being falsely convicted of a crime—spanning a combined 27,200 years of lost life.
(A prison cell is shown here at Alcatraz in this undated photo/CREDIT: Umanoide, UNSPLASH)
Each year on October 2, cities around the world recognize International Wrongful Conviction Day in an effort to honour those who lost their livelihoods—and sometimes lives—locked up for crimes they never committed.
Since 1989, there have been over 3,200 people exonerated in the United States after being falsely convicted of a crime—spanning a combined 27,200 years of lost life. With nearly two million people incarcerated in the United States, experts estimate that up to 5% of the population is wrongfully convicted, with 40,000 to 100,000 people currently serving time in prison for crimes committed by others.
In the National Registry of Exonerations’ September report, Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States 2022, researchers found that while Black people make up just 13.6 per cent of the American population, more than half of exonerees (53 per cent) are Black people.
Even starker, innocent Black Americans are seven times more likely than white Americans to be falsely convicted of a serious crime.
When it comes to homicide cases, researchers concluded that Black people who are convicted of murder are about 80 per cent more likely to be innocent compared to other convicted murderers. Furthermore, convictions that resulted in murder exonerations involving black defendants were nearly 50% more likely to include misconduct by police officers than convictions involving white defendants.
The legacy of The Innocence Project
The Innocence Project is a non-profit organization that began in 1992 in hopes of helping exonerate individuals who have been wrongly convicted by using DNA testing and advocating for criminal justice reform.
When the Innocence Project began 30 years ago, the organization’s founders believed DNA technology could be used as a tool not to prosecute and convict criminals but as a method of proving innocence in cases where people have been convicted of crimes they didn’t commit.
“This was radical,” Jordan Carlos, who wrote and starred in the first season of Freeform’s Everything’s Trash, explained at an In Our Own Words storytelling event last week. “It was 1992 and hardly anyone believed that there was such a thing as a wrongful conviction.”
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Over the course of three decades, the Innocence Project has helped exonerate more than 200 innocent people. They’ve also helped pass more than 200 laws to make the criminal justice system more reliable and equitable.
This year marked the ninth annual International Wrongful Conviction Day, which began in 2014. The theme, Collective Impact, seeks to celebrate community, kinship, belonging, and the power of banding together to fight injustice.
“The mission, of course, is freeing the innocent and transforming systems that allow injustice to happen, and building a more powerful movement for change,” Carlos said.
‘I had to keep pushing’: The long, arduous road to exoneration
For Cornelius Dupree, who served 30 years of his life in prison for crimes he didn’t commit, Wrongful Conviction Day represents both the resilience of those who were wrongfully convicted and the continued injustices that allow wrongful imprisonment to continue.
Cornelius Dupree speaks publicly after serving 30 years in prison under a wrongful conviction/COURTESY: Innocence Project)
On Nov. 23, 1979, Dupree was with his friends on their way to a house party when they were pulled over and questioned by police about a robbery and rape case in Dallas, Texas.
Dupree wouldn’t get out of prison until 2011, and his exoneration wouldn’t become official until 2018. While he spent decades without the hug of a loved one, no privilege of privacy, or the feeling of a raindrop in the cool autumn wind, Dupree never gave up his fight to prove his innocence.
“[I was] trying to be heard, only to be voiceless,” he said. “But I couldn’t quit, I had to keep pushing.”
Soon, Dupree began spending his free time studying law in the library. That’s where he first learned of the Innocent Project.
“What do I have to lose?” he thought.
Twenty years into Dupree's prison sentence, the Innocence Project took on his case pro bono, and helped him regain his freedom.
Now, Dupree is a public speaker who shares his experiences as an innocent man behind bars while continuing to be a voice for those who remain left behind.
Being a voice for the voiceless is something Eddie Lowery is also passionate about, after spending nine years in prison wrongfully convicted of rape, battery, and aggravated burglary.
(Eddie Lowery plays his guitar while wearing an Innocence Project t-shirt/COURTESY: Innocence Project)
As a 22-year-old working in the United States Navy, Lowery was still making a life for himself when he was brought in for questioning in the case of a 71-year-old woman who was attacked while sleeping at her home in Ogden, Kansas.
Not only did Lowery have no idea what the police wanted with him, he was also being held against his will. After two days of interrogation that felt like torture, Lowery was coerced by investigators to give a false confession.
“I just wanted out of this interrogation so bad that I began to say things that I learned during the interrogation,” he explained. “They would supply me with the answers… It didn't even dawn on me that I was given a confession, because I just wanted this interrogation to end.”
It wasn’t until Lowery was exonerated in 2003 and he began participating in workshops with the Innocence Project that he realized his wrongful conviction was not a result of anything he did wrong—and that many others suffered the same fate.
“A huge weight was lifted off me when I was hearing those stories, because I thought I was the only person in the world that ever gave a false confession,” he said, noting he spent years beating himself up for his coerced confession.
“Before all this happened to me, would I ever confess to a crime I never committed? I would have said no. You probably would have said, ‘Hell no.’ But it happened to me.”