We need to shed light on wrongful convictions

We need to shed light on wrongful convictions

Lamonte McIntyre, 41, walked out of a Kansas prison as a free man on Oct. 13 after spending 23 years behind bars. He was only 17 years old when he received two life sentences for the murders of two individuals involved in a drive-by shooting in Kansas City 23 years ago.

Lamonte’s mother, Rose McIntyre, wonders if her son would not have been convicted if she would have just agreed to the sexual favors the white detective on the case had asked of her. The Midwest Innocent Project was a part of the eight-year process to get Lamonte released from prison due to manifest injustice. During that period, many documents and witnesses came forward explaining that the detective had been praying on African-American women like Rose for years. Even though Lamonte was recently released, they are still working on sorting out the pieces that left this innocent man behind bars for so long.

What if I told you that there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of innocent people stuck behind bars? 

After hearing this shocking statistic, I was left questioning the American justice system, a system that supposedly is the best system in the world.

I recently heard another story that made me question a lot of things about our own beloved justice system and those that run it. It is often that these innocent people have initial ineffective assistance of counsel, and they are usually a “victim” (innocent or not) of an over-zealous and unethical prosecutor. 

This is something that people outside the profession rarely see or hear about; nevertheless, it is pervasive in several parts of the United States.

There are thousands of cases with unanswered questions. Subconsciously, in a law and order society, we as humans think everyone in jail belongs in jail. We don’t even care about those big trials and court appearances unless the case is local, it has a personal tie to us, or it is being blown up on CNN’s headlines with controversy. 

According to the Innocence Project's estimates, between 2.3 percent and 5 percent of all US prisoners are innocent. The American prison population number is about 2.4 million. As many as 120,000 innocent people could currently be in prison. 27 of the innocent convicts falsely confessed to their crimes – a group comprised mainly of children or the mentally handicapped. And over-zealous, politically motivated prosecutors were front and center during those confessions.

Through the help of funding and some of the top lawyers in the nation, many people have been exonerated with the project’s oversight. It costs about $100,000 per case and many more volunteer hours to take on a wrongful conviction.

A recent Innocence Project event highlighted Anthony Ray Hinton, the event’s guest speaker who shared his story. Hinton served 30 years on Alabama’s death row, despite evidence that he was working miles away at the time of the crime. The Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 2015.

His story, as well as Lamonte McIntyre’s, is captivating – including how he was held in a 5-by-5 cage for almost 16 years, how he maintained his sanity, his hope and his faith. And shockingly, how he was arrested and told by police and prosecutors that it did not matter if they had the wrong man; he was going to prison regardless. 

After reading similar stories, I felt sick. I was left with more questions, like, how, in America, can this happen? Yes, our law enforcement and judicial system do get it right many more times than they get it wrong, but the times we get it wrong are preventable. 

How many other people are innocently stuck behind bars that we just don’t know about, that we just don’t have the funds or volunteers to help investigate and free? I am thankful that there are organizations such the Innocence Project that are making such a difference in people’s lives.

This unexpected project that is gaining momentum and success on the wrongful-conviction front is led by the “good prosecutors,” those that value not just conviction rates but the true guilt or innocence of those that are charged.

The media have a role in all of this. They have enough power to shape our opinions, create new outlooks and make a difference in areas and on topics that get lost in our everyday lives. While some people may think attributing that much power to the media is a bad thing, I see it as a good thing. It is time for there to be a bright light shed on these wrongful conviction cases. I️ am thankful that there are organizations such as the Innocence Project that are making such a difference in people’s lives. 

Annie Milbourn is a junior majoring in journalism. Her column runs biweekly.

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