This week, two men convicted more than half a century ago of assassinating Malcolm X were exonerated. Yesterday, Judge Ellen Biben granted a motion to vacate the convictions of Muhammad A. Aziz and the late Khalil Islam, who were convicted of the murder in 1966 and sentenced to life in prison.
Both men maintained their innocence throughout. Even a third person convicted admitted that he was a part of the murder but the other two were not. Despite an absolute lack of evidence, the exonerating testimony from an individual involved in the crime, and a solid alibi of one of the accused, somehow the two men suffered for decades in prison as perceived killers of a civil rights icon, while law enforcement and prosecutors went about their days without a second thought, knowing they destroyed the lives of two men and their families.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said “such an action within the police department is unacceptable and he is troubled by wrongful convictions.” But this happens all the time, every day, in dozens of cases across the United States. What are you going to do about it Mayor de Blasio and others?
Since it’s establishment, the Innocence Project has been successful in reversing the conviction of hundreds of individuals wrongly convicted of crimes. Approximately two dozen of those were on DEATH ROW when they were exonerated! Some of the other surprising facts are that 63% of the convictions involved eyewitness misidentification, 26% involved false confessions and in 5% of the cases, the people actually plead guilty! How could that happen?!?
The job of law enforcement and the prosecutor should be to arrive at the truth. SHOULD be. That is no longer the case. Public pressure to solve crimes and incentives to secure arrests, forfeitures and convictions has changed the role and led to the use of some very, very shady tactics to secure convictions, including withholding exculpatory evidence, coercive interrogation tactics, lying, rewarding third parties with reduced sentences to provide testimony with no concern as to whether its true or false and threatening an accused with absurdly significant jail time if they don’t take a plea.
Wrongful convictions and coerced pleas are far more common than you think, and the problem is only getting worse. According to the Equal Justice Initiative there are more innocent people in our jails and prisons today than ever before. Unfortunately, a large percentage of those are caused by government misconduct (this report lays out some pretty alarming stats).
As an organization that advocates for those convicted of sexual offenses, we come across thousands who have been convicted of crimes, several hundred of which maintain that they are actually innocent of the crimes they were convicted of. In some cases the alleged victim lied about their age, in many cases the “offender” was involved in a bait and switch online sting, in some cases the offender suffers from a mental health disorder that rendered them incapable of appreciating the wrongfulness of their conduct, in some cases the conviction resulted from false accusations of a bitter ex-spouse or acrimonious relationship with a step child, and in other cases they simply got the wrong person.
We get calls all the time from people who will never graduate treatment because they refuse to admit to something they never did. We get calls all the time from people who honestly forgot to register something or didn’t know they were supposed to. We get calls all the time from people who were in an adult chat room with no intention of ever soliciting a minor and then sexual communication with who they thought was an adult and initiated by the other person was taken out of context. We get calls from people who were innocent but took a plea to whatever got them probation because otherwise they were risking years in prison. And we’ve even gotten calls from accusers who are afraid to come forward with the truth years later because they worry they will get arrested for perjury.
We are not discounting the fact that the majority of our members acknowledge they committed their offenses and are involved with FAC in an effort to do better, but we need to recognize that some did not. More importantly, we need to stop our governments from incentivizing arrests and convictions and get back to a culture where law enforcement and prosecutors are paid to uncover the truth.
Which brings us to a very simple call to action… This weekend I call on you to watch TV. Seriously! There are a number of documentaries out there that are must see documentaries about problems in the criminal justice system. Pick one or more and watch them. If not the one referenced above (“Who Killed Malcolm X”), watch “When They See Us” (about the Central Park 5), another good one is “The House I Live in” (about the “War on Drugs”), and, of course, the one you must absolutely watch if you have not seen it already is “Untouchable” (the David Feige documentary about the Florida Sex Offender Registry).
It is our hope that the injustice you see will spur you to take action. One such action should be calling on your state representative to pass legislation requiring each Circuit’s State Attorney to establish a Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) (which is a division of a prosecutorial office that works to prevent, identify, and remedy false convictions).