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).