1,600 U.S. Exonerations Highlight Unacceptable Error in Criminal Justice

The National Registry of Exonerations has announced a chilling milestone, the 1,600th known exoneration in the United States since 1989. The tally of persons known to have been convicted of crimes they did not commit has grown rapidly from the Registry’s launch three years ago. The 1600th exoneration, that of Michael McAlister, occurred last week.

Maurice Possley’s Registry report on Michael McAlister (here) provides the telling details — case unique and yet familiar — of a tragic miscarriage. Police and prosecutors would come to doubt McAlister’s guilt and subsequently joined a long effort to correct this stubborn error.

Summarizing Possley’s report…

McAlister spent 29 years in prison in Virginia for a 1986 attempted rape now known to have been committed by serial rapist Norman Derr who bore a remarkable resemblance to McAlister.

The victim, 22, broke free from the man who accosted her with a knife in her apartment laundry room. During the violent struggle, she got a partial glimpse of her attacker’s face and identified him as white, with light, long hair and mustache, and high cheekbones. He wore a red and white plaid shirt.

When McAlister, a local carpenter with drug and alcohol problems and two arrests for indecent exposure, became a suspect, police took a photo of him; he was wearing a red, white, and blue plaid shirt. The victim selected McAlister’s photo from the lineup.

Although an apparent open-and-shut case, Richmond Police Detective Charles Martin doubted McAlister’s guilt when he became aware of an ongoing police investigation of a series of rapes in the region. The attacks had been carried out in apartment buildings by a masked man with a knife. The suspect, Norman Derr, had been followed earlier by police investigators to the same apartment building of the later attack for which McAlister was a suspect.

When police showed the victim another photo lineup including both McAlister and Derr, she again selected McAlister.

In spite of testimony from McAlister’s mother and girlfriend that they’d been with him the day of the assault and he’d been with his mother that evening, a judge convicted him of attempted rape and intent to defile.

McAlister was sentenced to 35 years in prison. His appeal was denied.

In 1993, both Detective Martin and Prosecutor Joe Morrissey testified that they believed McAlister was innocent, but parole was denied.

In 2002, Frank Green wrote in the Richmond Times-Dispatch about the remarkable resemblance between McAlister and Derr. With heightened public awareness and support from the police detective and the prosecutor, McAlister petitioned then Governor Mark Warner for a pardon. But in 2003, the governor denied the pardon due to lack of DNA proof of innocence.

In 2004 McAlister was finally granted parole. He registered as a sex offender and struggled. Depressed, he began drinking, and was returned to prison on a parole violation in 2006.

In 2015, Virginia filed a petition that would have denied McAlister his scheduled release under the state’s civil commitment process intended for dangerous sexual predators.

Meanwhile, the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project was instrumental in the exoneration of Jerry Lee Jenkins, who had been convicted of a 1987 rape, which DNA proved was committed by Norman Derr.

Derr had received multiple life sentences for violent assault convictions in Virginia and Maryland. This evidence and his admission that he committed the crime for which McAlister had been convicted, prompted Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe to grant McAlister an absolute pardon. He was released from prison last week.

While the details in this case are unique, the errors and shortcomings are familiar and now quantifiable. The Registry’s online searchable database of wrongful convictions has increased our understanding of how miscarriages occur, how difficult they are to correct, and how they might be prevented.

As examples, incorrect eyewitness identification often trumps reliable evidence, such as an alibi. Research has shown that repeated exposure of a suspect in a lineup can contaminate a memory or confirm a mistaken memory. Best practices in lineups relating to lineup selection, presentation, and administration can reduce eyewitness error. Similar recommendations for interrogations and other criminal justice procedures can reduce error, but these have not been universally adopted and even have met strong resistance.

Additionally, the appeals process has failed to rectify conviction errors. An argument can be made that it was not designed to do so. Innovative prosecutors have responded with new ways to address worthy claims of innocence including Conviction Integrity Units, with varying success in identifying and exonerating the innocent.

While DNA has revealed wrongful convictions, DNA is unavailable in the majority of cases. The red flags of wrongful conviction revealed by DNA must be recognized in worthy claims of innocence without DNA evidence.

The National Registry of Exoneration’s research on wrongful convictions reveals both systemic and human flaws that must be addressed if we are to have confidence in criminal justice. Known exonerations suggest an unknowable number of innocents in prison today. The tragic, costly impact of wrongful conviction on a scale once unimaginable to most Americans cries out for a national commitment to improve our criminal justice system.

Visit the The National Registry of Exonerations (here).

15 responses to “1,600 U.S. Exonerations Highlight Unacceptable Error in Criminal Justice

  1. Nancy – thanks for bringing this milestone, unenviable as it may be, to our attention.

  2. Nancy – Thanks for highlighting this sad statistic. At the Innocence Network Conference, we heard 150 exonerees introduce themselves and state how long they each spent in prison. It went on what seemed like an eternity! We witnessed a large Hilton Ballroom full of miracles. Can you imagine listening to all 1,600 exonerees – which all prosecutors, judges, lawmakers and those responsible for the wrongful convictions and wrongful imprisonment should be forced to listen to. Then maybe we would see immediate reform.

    At the very least, the states and the government have the responsibility to compensate all of them – restore health care, social security and benefits they would have received if they had never been wrongfully convicted. The missing years of their lives can never be restored.

    This is just the tip of the iceberg of a failed justice system that bodes poorly for the people, our children and grandchildren and their liberty and freedom. There are hundreds of thousands of innocent men and women languishing in prisons across America.

    • This stands out …. “While DNA has revealed wrongful convictions, DNA is unavailable in the majority of cases. The red flags of wrongful conviction revealed by DNA must be recognized in worthy claims of innocence without DNA evidence.”

    • Victims of prosecutorial misconduct press for watchdog | Capitol Confidential April 29, 2015


      “A group of New Yorkers who collectively lost decades in prison for crimes they didn’t commit came to the Capitol on Wednesday in support of legislation that would create a panel charged with investigating cases of prosecutorial misconduct. ….. Victims of wrongful conviction who appeared included Jeffrey Deskovic, who served 16 years for rape and murder after being coerced into a confession by a Putnam County investigator. Ultimately exonerated by DNA evidence, Deskovic won a $40 million ruling in his lawsuit against the county last fall.”

      dutch says:
      April 29, 2015 at 7:36 pm
      “Prosecutors have too much power, too much discretion and too little accountability. To knowingly put an innocent people into prison is heinous. To do so with callous disregard for the truth or to due process is as well. When we consider that District Attorneys are ambitious politicians who are more concerned with their own image and career path than they are in seeing justice done, it is a scandal that no formal check upon their conduct currently exists. This measure, assuming it is well written, is long overdue.”

  3. Hi I’m Thomas Phillip Bell and I recently had a wrongful conviction I sat three year’s in jail trying to fight a Rape charge I did not commit, There was no truth to the young 18 year old story I have to register as a sex offender for the rest of my life I’m innocent I also have a fine out of this world that I have to pay I had a $1,000,000 lawsuit going on against one of the United States government’s I could have been set up I’m not sure but it did not stop me from fighting both legal case and the case held against me I was living in Pierre, South Dakota I was sentenced in judge John L. Brown court room, My first attorney told me the DNA they found in the lady was not mine. We were having sex and she coped out so I got off her, she told the police I kid named her, she walked with me willingly.

  4. 1600 is quite a small number compared to the number of cases involved. And, furthermore, even the 1600 is overblown as many of the people on the list are factually guilty and actually did commit the crime for which they were convicted.

  5. Thank you, Camille and Phil. Perugia Murder File, the bar for inclusion on The National Registry is very high. This is a research organization that relies on publicly available information of exonerations based on official actions of courts and other government agencies. If you have any evidence of guilt for anyone on the list, you should contact Samual Gross, Director of the National Registry of Exonerations and Professor of Law at University of Michigan Law School.

  6. The alibi itself is a real interesting enigma.
    Think about whom you spend most of your free time with…parents, siblings, loved ones and friends. This is typical of most people including prosecutors I would assume. Yet those same prosecutors will disregard your family or friend alibi witness as unreliable under the all encompassing farce that your loved ones will say anything to keep you out of jail. I am wondering if it would be legally safer to hang out with my enemies and strangers to appease any prosecutor questioning my alibi. Should the lesson be here to stay away from loved ones because the alibi that they provide you with is essentially worthless?

  7. Reblogged this on FORENSICS in FOCUS @ CSIDDS | News and Trends and commented:
    You gotta read the comments. Some think these statistics and cases are mostly a hoax.

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