States Have Paid $2.2 Billion to Exonerees

The National Registry of Exonerations (NRE) will soon publish the second part of a study of all known false convictions in the U.S. since 1989. The 2,265 exonerees in the database served a combined 20,080 years behind bars.

The National Registry of Exonerations (NRE) will soon publish the second part of a study of all known false convictions in the U.S. since 1989. The 2,265 exonerees in the database served a combined 20,080 years behind bars. That’s an enormous amount of wasted human potential, writes Radley Balko in the Washington Post. In an accompanying law review article, George Washington University law Prof. Jeffrey Gutman looked at compensation for the wrongly convicted. Between lawsuits and state law that award fixed compensation for wrongful convictions, state and municipal governments have paid out $2.2 billion to exonerees. More than half the exonerees in the database have never been compensated. In states with statutes that dictate the sum to be paid to the wrongly convicted, exonerees on average receive $69,000 per year in prison. Those who sue do better, averaging more than $300,000 per year. Lawsuits are also much less predictable.

Among the states that do have compensation statutes, Gutman ranks Mississippi as the most generous, though exonerees must forgo their right to sue the state for civil damages. African Americans are more likely to be wrongly convicted — they make up 12 percent of the population but 46 percent of exonerees, and represent 56 percent of the life years lost to prison. Perhaps counterintuitively, exonerees who falsely confessed had both a higher rate of victory when suing for damages and collected more money when they won. Many of the states with compensation statutes refuse to pay exonerees who falsely confess, on the ground  that they contributed to their own conviction. It is difficult to tally everyone who has been exonerated. As the national registry says, “There are many exonerations from past years that we don’t know about — we keep finding them when we have time to look — and the vast majority of false convictions are never recognized at all.”


Why Exoneration Rate is Up for Michigan Inmates

There have been 72 exonerations in Michigan since 2003, including a record 14 last year. Analysts blame longtime problems in the Detroit Police Department. Police Chief James Craig says the culture has improved.

Ken Wyniemko spent nine years in prison before DNA proved he wasn’t a rapist. He’s been free since 2003, but he’s still haunted by the horrors of Michigan penitentiary life, reports the Detroit News. “When I was locked up, I saw people get stabbed to death; I’ve seen people get raped; I’ve seen guards get stabbed,” said Wyniemko, 67. “Those visions have gone away a little bit but … I get flashbacks. I have times where I can’t sleep at night and the images keep popping up in my head.” When Wyniemko’s conviction was overturned in 2003, exonerations were rare. That has changed because of things like advances in forensic science and what innocence advocates say is a new willingness by police and prosecutors to take a second look at potentially tainted cases.

Only 18 Michigan prisoners were exonerated between 1991 and 2003. Since then, there have been 72 exonerations in the state, including a record 14 last year, says the National Registry of Exonerations. This year, four Michigan prisoners have been exonerated, and three others were granted new trials. Since Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy in Detroit formed the Conviction Integrity Unit in November to look at possible wrongful convictions, two people have been exonerated, while two others got new trials. University of Michigan law Prof. David Moran said the uptick in Michigan exoneration cases stems largely from problems in the Detroit Police Department that prompted a federal consent decree in 2003 and issues with the police crime lab, which was shut down in 2008 because of rampant mismanagement and possible corruption. >Detroit Police Chief James Craig said the culture that once permeated the department has changed. He said, “One of the main things I focused on in my first year was management accountability.”


A ‘Holistic’ Approach to Wrongful Convictions

The “piecemeal” approach by state and federal court approach to addressing trial-level errors fails to account for the complex ways that seemingly independent errors interact with one another, writes a professor at the Northeastern University School of Law.

To set wrongful convictions right, appeals courts need to change the way they review evidence, according to Stephanie Roberts Hartung, a professor at the Northeastern University School of Law.

In “The Confluence of Factors Doctrine: A Holistic Approach to Wrongful Conviction,” Hartung argues that courts must adopt a holistic approach that accounts for the ways that errors in evidence-gathering often work in concert to obscure innocence.

“Frequently, it is not a single misstep that causes a wrongful conviction, but rather a ‘confluence of factors,’” she wrote.

But historically, state and federal court’s piecemeal approach to addressing trial-level errors fails to account for the complex ways that seemingly independent errors interact with one another.

Published in the Suffolk University Law Review, Hartung’s article points to the post-conviction jurisprudence developed by the Massachusetts Supreme Court in a number of cases, most recently Commonwealth v. Rosario in 2017, as an example of the approach she advocates. In each case, the court recognized that an approach which considered evidence in isolation would have failed to identify the wrongful conviction at hand.

Recent data suggests that the criminal appeals process is largely failing to protect against wrongful convictions. Prof. Brandon Garrett of Duke Law School finds that only 14 percent of factually innocent defendants who were ultimately exonerated by DNA evidence initially won a reversal on appeal—meaning that 86 percent of the time, courts do not recognize valid claims of innocence.

This is in part because the appellate process focuses more on fixing procedural mistakes than re-adjudicating questions of guilt.

The harmless-error doctrine poses another obstacle to the wrongfully convicted. Courts apply the philosophy that not every error is worth the trouble of addressing with little rhyme or reason, often ignoring the ways that errors can build upon each other.

As an example, Hartung writes, “a suggestive eyewitness identification procedure can lead to a misidentification, which in turn can cause a flawed forensic analysis of related physical evidence that may be tainted by the examiner’s knowledge of the previous identification.”

But viewing each of these errors in isolation masks the way that one leads to another, “making the evidence in support of guilt appear stronger than it is.”

Cognitive biases also play a role in keeping the innocent behind bars. Criminal justice actors tend not to question the validity of forensic evidence, and jurors often rely heavily upon evidence against a defendant while downplaying evidence of innocence.

Holistic review reveals the way that one piece of faulty evidence can infect other evidence. In the Rosario case, erroneous but seemingly scientific forensic evidence tainted what appeared to be independent corroborative evidence, and combined with a tendency to overlook exculpatory evidence to put an innocent man in prison. It was only when the evidence was reexamined all together that Rosario was ultimately exonerated.

As the number of exonerations grows, it becomes clear that wrongful convictions are not as rare as was once believed. The National Registry of Exonerations has counted 2,257 exonerations since 1989, and that number rises each year.

These cases demonstrate the need not just for prospective reforms that aim to prevent wrongful conviction, but retrospective reforms that seek to identify false convictions that have already taken place, wrote Hartung.

“A wrongful conviction of an innocent person is a profound failure of justice and typically does not occur as a result of a single, isolated error,” she wrote. “Now is the time for courts to adapt their approach to post-conviction review of innocence claims.”

Elena Schwartz is a TCR news intern. Readers’ comments welcome.


Wrongful Misdemeanor Convictions: Who’s Counting?

In most jurisdictions, drug arrests are based on cheap, error-prone field tests, and should the defendant plead guilty to the charge, no further testing occurs, writes the director of the National Registry of Exonerations. As a result, there is no telling how many people live with the consequences of conviction for a crime they never committed.

There’s good reason to think that many of those convicted of misdemeanors are innocent, according to Samuel Gross, the editor of the National Registry of Exonerations project.

In a paper published in the Boston University Law Review, Gross claims that there is no way to know how many wrongful misdemeanor convictions have occurred because of the difficulty of detection and the lack of data on the subject. About 13.2 million misdemeanor cases are filed annually, but no estimates exist for how many yield convictions, let alone how many of those convictions might be false.

To date, the National Registry of Exonerations, a project that seeks to track false convictions to prevent future errors, has tallied 85 misdemeanor exonerations in the last 29 years – about four percent of the total 2,145 exonerations since 1989, the rest of which are felonies.

But this low count is not to say that misdemeanor false convictions are less common than felony false convictions. The exonerations are simply more unlikely.

The most typical misdemeanor exonerations, which take place an average of 1.7 years after conviction, are for drug possession – 58 out of the total 85 counted by the Registry. All but one of these exonerations took place in Harris County, Texas.

This is not due to some particular concentration of bogus drug busts in Harris County, according to Gross. Rather, Harris County is the only jurisdiction in the country with a crime lab that regularly tests substances thought to be illegal drugs after the suspects carrying them have already been charged and pled guilty. In most jurisdictions, drug arrests are based on cheap, error-prone field tests, and should the defendant plead guilty to the charge, no further testing occurs.

It is not difficult to imagine, then, that many people convicted of misdemeanor drug possession might in fact be innocent and never get the chance to clear their names.

Gross recounts the stories of two people wrongfully convicted of other misdemeanors who were later cleared of all charges to illustrate just how implausible exoneration is.

In both cases, he writes, “the police placed the crime-scene DNA profiles for these cases in government databases even though the cases had been closed by arrest and conviction, and the real criminals’ DNA profiles ended up in the same databases because they were convicted of other crimes, and the crime-scene profiles were matched by database software to the real criminals’ profiles, and the police were notified and, in turn, notified the prosecutors who contacted the defendants and secured exonerations.”

“That’s a pretty improbable deus ex machina.”

In the majority of misdemeanor exoneration cases, the defendant was convicted after accepting a plea deal.

“Plea bargaining is the great American method of sweeping problems in criminal cases under the rug,” Gross writes. “The defendant’s constitutional rights were violated? No problem; offer him a good enough deal, he’ll plead guilty, and that’ll be the end of it. The evidence of guilt stinks? If you reduce the charges enough he’ll probably go for it, and we’ll never have to present any evidence.”

But if defendants know they are innocent, why would they plead guilty? In most cases, Gross says, a plea bargain is the quickest route home.

“In the usual case, the defendant had a criminal record. As a result, bail was too high for him to make. If he pled not guilty, he’d wait months for a trial, in jail – and then might be sentenced to years in prison if convicted,” he writes.

“It’s not surprise that given the choice, many pled guilty and went home within days or weeks, or immediately.”

While guilty pleas get defendants out of jail more quickly, they also create an additional obstacle to exoneration: “It’s easier to persuade people that you’re innocent if you’ve never admitted to being guilty.”

Gross says that with the little data that exists, there is no telling how many people live with the consequences of conviction for a crime they never committed – something that should give all actors in the justice system pause.


Documents Renew Debate Over NYC Central Park Five

New York City is releasing 200,000 pages of documents on the 1989 jogger rape case that led to the conviction and later exoneration of five teenagers. Donald Trump was a critic of the $41 million settlement in the case.

Debate over New York City’s infamous Central Park Five case was revived as the city issued the first of 200,000 pages of documents related to the 1989 jogger rape case, the New York Daily News reports. Five teenagers languished in prison for more than a decade before they were exonerated in the rape of Trisha Meili. The defendants had their convictions overturned in 2002 after a prison inmate, Matias Reyes, said he was the one who raped Meili, and DNA evidence backed his confession. The Central Park Five, as they were called in headlines, were awarded a $41 million settlement from the city in 2014.

Critics of the settlement included Donald Trump, who bought ads in four newspapers in the aftermath of the incident calling for the death penalty. All five suspects were convicted, each spending between seven and 13 years in prison. Critics said the defendants were part of a group of marauders who menaced people in the park – wilding was the term widely used – robbing, beating and harassing joggers, walkers and people sitting on benches. “These documents and videos will certainly challenge the prevailing narrative that completely omitted more than 50 percent of the evidence in this case,” said former prosecutor Linda Fairstein. “These young men were arrested as a result of a meticulous police investigation, and there’s no doubt that they were, as charged, rioting and attacking people in the park.” Lawyer Jonathan Moore, who represented several defendants in a civil case, said, “There was clearly evidence that there were kids in the park who were doing some adolescent stuff. But there’s absolutely no evidence that they had anything to do with Trisha Meili. Linda Fairstein knows that, and the fact that she still holds on to it is unbelievable, actually.” More materials on the case will be released in the coming days.


Jury Awards $17M in Chicago Wrongful Conviction

A federal jury awarded $17.175 million to Jacques Rivera, who spent 21 years behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit. It is another case tied to former Chicago cop Reynaldo Guevara, who invoked his Fifth Amendment right hundreds of times as he was questioned on the stand. 

A federal jury awarded $17.175 million to Jacques Rivera, who spent 21 years behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit, the Chicago Sun-Times reports. It is another case tied to former Chicago cop Reynaldo Guevara, who invoked his Fifth Amendment right hundreds of times as he was questioned on the stand during the case. Rivera was imprisoned for the 1988 murder of 16-year-old Felix Valentin. “Twenty-one years, this guy put me away, away from my family,” said Rivera, wearing a shirt to court with the motto, “Trust & Believe.”

Speaking to the jury, Rivera’s attorney, Jon Loevy, railed against the 75-year-old ex-Chicago cop Guevara, whom Loevy said was a main author of a scheme to frame his client for murder. The jury ordered Guevara personally to pay $75,000 in punitive damages. Two more officers in the investigation were also ordered to pay $75,000 and $25,000, respectively. Apart from claims of false police reports, Loevy boiled the case down to the coerced testimony of Oscar Lopez — the only witness in the case — who was 12 years old at the time. Guevara manipulated the “malleable memory” of a boy who saw a gunman from a distance of nearly 200 feet in order to fit the police version of events, Loevy said. Lopez admitted to investigators from Northwestern University’s Center for Wrongful Convictions in 2010 that he knew Rivera, who’s now 52, was not the shooter.


Not Guilty—But Not Free 

When exonerated individuals finally leave prison, they are often free in name only. For many of them, the struggle to find employment, housing and mental health treatment is the “stuff of nightmares,” writes a former Baltimore public defender.

Earlier this year, Richard Phillips—wrongfully convicted and locked up for 47 years— was finally exonerated and released at the age of 72. His reentry into society should be a happy occasion, but Phillips now faces an entirely new set of challenges.

When the state makes such a grave mistake, you would assume there would be a protocol to help Phillips transition back into the real world.

Not so.

Phillips said there are programs in place for former prisoners, but when you have been declared not guilty “You’re on your own.”  Since his release, Phillips has been slowly trying to rebuild his life. He has applied for financial assistance as well as new IDs, since his were all lost while he was incarcerated.

Richard Phillips

Richard Phillips. Photo from Massachusetts Department of Corrections

Phillips’ dilemma raises a larger issue regarding the lack of support for those exonerated of crimes they did not commit. While not all states impose ongoing restrictions on exonerees, most do little to help exonerees get back on their feet after prison.

This leaves many struggling to find employment, housing and, most of all, mental health treatment. The state has a fundamental obligation to help exonerees return to society. They should be doing more to uphold this obligation.

The mental health burdens on the wrongly convicted are tremendous, as case after case demonstrates.

After his exoneration, Gary Gauger—who was wrongfully sentenced to death in 1994 for the murder of his parents—wouldn’t leave home unless forced to do so.

Another exoneree named Earl Charles—who described his wrongful conviction as a “scar,”committed suicide in 1991 by walking into oncoming traffic. Darryl Hunt, who spent 19 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, killed himself in a parking lot. Roy Criner, who spent 10 years in prison before being exonerated, says he has attempted suicide three times.

This is the stuff of nightmares.

Exonerees are imprisoned for crimes they did not commit— an injustice in itself that most people could not imagine. They then return to a society that may still think they committed the crime despite their exoneration. The world they return to after years—sometimes decades—behind bars is often completely different from the one they left.

Exonerees struggle to find employment, as they are not entitled to their former jobs and their arrest record can still appear on background checks. They often speak of lacking a social support system and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other chronic health conditions.

Given that they have to try to reconcile and come to terms with their experience of wrongful imprisonment, exonerees might have the highest incidence of PTSD of all former inmates.

A little over half of states have compensation statutes for the wrongfully convicted. Moreover, state compensation mechanisms severely limit those who may qualify for compensation and cap the amount of recovery at artificially-low levels. A study by the Innocence Project found that only 37 percent of those exonerated receive any funding from the state at all.

Unlike parolees and probationers, exonerees often don’t have services to help them re-enter society. Only three states have dedicated re-entry services for the exonerated. Given that exonerees shouldn’t be “re-entering” in the first place, this makes no sense.

Given the challenges we know the formerly incarcerated face when they return to society, this state of affairs is appalling. While we can never truly right the wrong of placing an innocent person behind bars, at the very least, we should provide compensation and re-entry services to help these individuals get back on their feet.

Nia Bala

Nia Bala

And we certainly should not continue to supervise them when they should never have been behind bars in the first place.

The way we treat exonerees—those who have been fundamentally wronged by the government in the most unimaginable way possible—should horrify us. Phillips and the thousands of other individuals who have been exonerated deserve better.

Nila Bala is a senior criminal justice fellow at the R Street Institute and a former assistant public defender of Baltimore. She welcomes readers’ comments.


Louisiana Law Seeks to Prevent Eyewitness ID Errors

With a goal of preventing wrongful convictions, the newly signed legislation requires Louisiana police agencies to adopt best practices on eyewitness identification procedures. Data suggests misidentifications were a factor in nearly three-quarters of the 2,000 known exonerations in the U.S. since 1989.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards on Wednesday signed into law legislation requiring all police agencies in Louisiana to adopt eyewitness identification procedures aimed at preventing mistaken identifications and wrongful convictions, reports At Edwards’ side during the signing ceremony was Robert Jones, a New Orleans man who spent 23 years in prison on a wrongful conviction that hinged on witness misidentification. “It could prevent atrocities from happening like what happened to me and other guys,” Jones said of the new law.

The legislation mandates that all police agencies in the state must adopt the Louisiana Sheriff’s Executive Management Institute model policy on eyewitness identification procedures, or write its own policy that adapts best practices. The model policy calls for, among other procedures, blind administration of photo lineups and instructions that the suspect may or may not be in the lineup. Misidentifications were a factor in 73 percent of the 2,000 exoneration cases in the United States since 1989, the National Registry of Exonerations found. Of all the exonerations cases tracked by the group, eyewitness misidentifications made unintentionally were a factor in 30 percent of the cases.


Detectives with a Mission: Texas Exonerees Help the Wrongly Convicted

Three Dallas men freed after being exonerated for crimes they didn’t commit dedicated the rest of their lives to saving others in the same situation. Filmmaker Jamie Meltzer tells their story in a PBS documentary to be aired Monday.

Christopher Scott, Johnnie Lindsey and Steven Phillips served a combined 60 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. But when each of them was finally exonerated, they did more than just celebrate their newfound freedom. They decided to put their hard-won knowledge of the criminal justice system to help others in the same position, by forming a detective agency to do the kind of investigation that would otherwise be unaffordable to victims of wrongful convictions.

But their organization, called the  House of Renewed Hope, offers services not usually associated with private eyes. Not only does it fight for innocent people in prison; it supports the exonorees once they get out. Their story is told in “True Conviction,” a documentary directed by Jamie Meltzer, which is scheduled to be shown Monday on PBS stations.

Scott and Meltzer sat down recently to talk with TCR’s Julia Pagnamenta about how the film was made, and about why it takes a combination of detective skills, prison-honed patience and sheer stubbornness to succeed in their chosen mission.

The Crime Report: Jamie, how did you become aware of Christopher Scott, Johnnie Lindsey, and Steven Phillips, and the work they were doing on behalf of wrongly convicted people?

JAMIE MELTZER:  A friend named Michael May, who was a reporter in Texas, had done a story about the Dallas County exonorees. At that time, in 2012, there were more than 30 exonorees. Then he told me that Chris [Scott] and a few of the other guys, were about to start a detective agency, an investigation team to look into other wrongful convictions. I thought that was a brilliant, really interesting idea. As a documentary filmmaker you are looking for a really compelling story as a way to shed light on a larger criminal justice issue. This seemed like the perfect vehicle for that. Then I spent an afternoon with Chris and about a dozen other guys who were all exonerated. Just being in that room was really moving. It convinced me that this was a story that needed to be told.

TCR: And the criminal justice system was new to you?

MELTZER: I hadn’t had any experience with the criminal justice system or thinking about it too deeply. Like most people, until it affects you personally, it’s sort of unfathomable that what happened to these guys would happen. Of course, after you spend time with the exonorees, you realize it can happen to anyone. Steven Phillips is a white guy who is wrongfully convicted, but the film really is about structural racism in the criminal justice system. There are many more African Americans that this is happening to. It made me ashamed that I had never thought that this could be a danger.

TCR: Chris, can you talk more about your relationship with Steven, who was wrongfully imprisoned for 25 years on a sexual assault case? In the documentary you explain that Steven helped you out once you got out of prison in 2009. He gave you $20,000 to help you start your new life.

SCOTT: Steven gave me that out of his compensation money because he [had gotten] out before me. He had already lived the experience of being an exonoree, and he knew the challenges it would take to get through those dark and trying times. He just pretty much took me under his wing and told me how to survive and live again. He said, “Don’t let getting wrongfully convicted hinder you.” [It’s] supposed to make you stronger, supposed to make you want to do things that help you change the criminal justice system. So his experience gave me my experience, and that $20,000 helped me from the time that I got out to the time I got compensated. That was just Steven’s good nature.

TCR: The documentary gets some incredible access that you wouldn’t typically see on screen.  For instance, there’s a moment when you visit Steven Phillips in jail after he gets arrested [a second time] because a police officer searches his car and finds drugs.

MELTZER: We were very persistent as a production team. When Chris and the guys want to interview someone for a case, it’s very hard to turn them down because they have such a compelling back story. As for me, the filmmaker, I would just follow up. It wasn’t that big of a deal. I remember within that jail environment Steven was in, he made really good friends with the warden because she understood his story. She was just a good person and she responded to the story.

CHRIS SCOTT: Steven was dealing with a drug situation. When people get exonerated they still have demons that they are fighting and it’s easy to slip back into that mode, so being able to capture Steven in jail maybe did him some good because he knew we were there for him.

TCR: What happened to Steven’s case? The documentary ends before his case reaches a verdict.

MELTZER: It gets dismissed.

SCOTT: Illegal search and seizure.

Documentary filmmaker Jamie Meltzer learned about the House of Renewed Hope from a reporter at the Texas Observer. Photo courtesy PBS

MELTZER: Basically the police officer looked him up and somehow saw that he was convicted but he hadn’t been convicted because his record should be expunged.

SCOTT: I guess [the police] thought they had probable cause. He had a shotgun in the car window, and shotguns are legal [in TX], but maybe the cops were just suspicious. As Steven said, the cop Googled him and sees that he is a felon. Steven said, I am not, so the cop says OK, we are going to search your car. The judge dismissed him because he said it was evidence [obtained as] fruit of the poisonous tree. It should have never happened. He got really lucky. The crazy thing is Steven missed a trial date because he was in the casino, and the judge looked at his Facebook page and sees a picture of Steve at the casino the day he was supposed to be in trial, but the judge still let him make it. So in actuality you can look at [Steven’s case] as having that white privilege. Because if that was an African-American guy he would have been hung, and that’s why I am glad Steven is part of my team because it shows you the racial bias. Steve got away with it, but the average black guy is not going to get away with none of that. He is going to go to prison.

TCR: Do exonerees receive any form of help or support when they get out of prison?

SCOTT: Exonorees get nothing. It’s just like, “hey, we let you go.” [You don’t get compensated] until you get declared innocent.

TCR: Which can take a long time. How long did it take for you?

SCOTT: I think mine was the quickest. I think I got exonerated in 90 days. But other exonorees, it took them a year or two, or three or four years, to get fully exonerated. I think for me it was so quick because I was the first non-DNA case, and it was two of us, so they wanted to set a precedent. People with non-DNA cases now have a fighting chance. With me being released, it just showed them that even though you don’t have any DNA, you can actually be found innocent.

TCR: Chris, you were in prison for 13 years. During that time, did you think you would ever be exonerated?

SCOTT: At one particular time I didn’t, but as the years went on, I thought something has got to break, something has got to happen, but I never knew a guy that came back and confessed to capital murder, so that was the only thing I had to live for. I was wondering will the guy [the man responsible for the crimes] ever do it? Eventually he did.

TCR: How did he go about confessing the murders?

The first time he confessed was kind of weird because he confessed to my brother, not knowing the guy was my brother. My brother worked at the barber shop, and [the man] came into the barbershop talking about the case, and my brother overheard him and said this sounds like my little brother’s case. They ended up meeting in the yard and he showed him a picture of me, and he said, yeah, that’s the guy who’s in prison for me right now, Christopher Scott. But that happened in 2002, and I didn’t get released until 2009. I do seven more years.

TCR: What did your brother do with this information?

He wrote an affidavit and we sent it to the district attorney’s office, and their response was, there is no way we are going to accept this affidavit because we’ve never done a non-DNA case before. There is nothing to prove that you didn’t commit this crime. It took until 2006 until we got the first African-American district attorney in the state of Texas, Craig Watkins. He took it upon himself to see if there was anything he could do about this non-DNA case.

TCR: What was your experience like, getting out of prison after serving 13 years for a crime you didn’t commit?

SCOTT: Well, being in prison, everything is pretty much controlled. You’re in a controlled environment. You can only think so far out the box. And being free is having the freedom to do exactly what you want to do. It’s about cherishing those small things in life, and it’s crazy because in prison you are limited.

Steven said that when he first got out he stood in the potato chip aisle for about 45 minutes because he was mesmerized by the varieties. I was the same way with ice cream. In prison, you got vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, maybe Neapolitan, that’s it, you don’t have the sherbets, or the mixtures of ice cream, or the butter pecan, praline and cream.

TCR: Jamie, you started filming “True Conviction” in 2012, and what makes the documentary so compelling is that by following the lives of the three exonorees, viewers witness these incredible, often traumatic events unfold. Steven, for instance hadn’t been arrested when you first started filming. And you were filming the scene in court where Chris’ son gets sentenced to seven years in prison.

MELTZER: That’s the power of documentaries, you are along for a journey, and you connect with amazing things people are doing, like Chris and his team. Neither of us knew what was going to happen.

TCR: Chris, was there ever a moment where you were thinking, or you told Jamie, I don’t want this to be captured?

SCOTT: I wanted the world to see [how] me being taken away from [my son] at a young age affected him. Because at the age of 16 is when he caught his first charge, and went to prison for it. And him knowing I wasn’t there, he was like, you were all I had. Once you left I had no one to depend on, so he started depending on himself and turned to a life of crime.

I know that if I hadn’t been wrongfully imprisoned my son would have never [committed the crime].  I would have been able to raise him right, raise him properly in terms of doing the right thing in society. A lot of times when kids get in trouble it’s [because they are] from a broken home. Because their dads aren’t there to show them how to be a man. It triggered a lot of emotion. I wanted this to be captured because the world needs to see that this happens and it destroys [the lives of] everybody that it touches.

TCR: The documentary captures the cyclical nature of this destruction. There is a lot of footage of you caring, and raising your grandson.

SCOTT: My grandson is the same age that my kids were when I left [for prison].

TCR: The documentary follows the story of two men who claim to be wrongfully incarcerated, Max Soffar and Isaiah Hill.

SCOTT: Isaiah Hill’s case came to me because his cellmate wrote to me. He was accused of aggravated robbery over $150. The way he expressed himself about being falsely imprisoned, and then the emotions he had, [I knew] this is not a guy who is lying.  . So I took it upon myself to help him as much as I could. We were working on Isaiah’s case for at least three years, trying to help him get exonerated. We located the guy who had supposedly committed the crime, Don Wallace.

TCR: After serving 40 years, Isaiah Hill wasn’t exonerated?

He got paroled because [Don Wallace] wouldn’t confess to the crime. There is no way in the world that [Isaiah Hill] committed these crimes because Isaiah is mentally challenged, he’s illiterate, so I don’t see him concocting something like this to commit a robbery. So from day one I believed him. He was locked up in Brownwood, TX. It’s a racist town. We came to realize that Isaiah was set up.  We even proposed to Don Wallace that we can get a letter from our attorney saying you won’t be recharged. But he would not do it. He said he had beaten nine aggravated robbery cases, and I was [thinking] —those nine cases you beat, you probably got nine innocent people in prison behind those nine robberies.

TCR: Because he wasn’t exonerated, besides not getting his name cleared, Isaiah didn’t get compensated?

SCOTT: He can’t get compensated.

MELTZER: He gets social security.

SCOTT: We made sure he got some kind of income.

MELTZER: But he’s doing really well. He got out in 2016, and it took a year after that to get the ankle monitor off.

SCOTT: And now he’s married.

TCR: And what about Max Soffar, who maintained he was wrongfully accused of committing a triple homicide in Houston bowling alley?

SCOTT: He was on death row for almost 40 years. Michael May, the reporter from The Texas Observer who brought us to Jamie’s attention, told me about him. When I first encountered [Soffar] I believed him.  Because for a person to give you that much detail about the case I got the feeling he was telling the truth. Like we said in the documentary, Max Soffar was a habitual liar. He fabricated a lot of stories, so I think they just got tired of him crying wolf, and eventually they closed the case.

TCR: He was convicted based on his confession, which has been proven to be an unreliable method of extracting information.

He had three different confessions, and none of the confessions met each other, or had anything to do with the case itself. But when you have a prosecutor who said God made him convict Max Soffar without any physical evidence, then you know there is a problem. How can god allow you to convict somebody without any evidence, and allow him to be put on death row?
We had a prime suspect [Paul Reid], but he died on death row of natural causes.

MELTZER: We went to Nashville and met the public defender for Paul Reid. There’s a scene about him in the film. He killed eight people in a similar way, so Chris and the guys interview a couple of people who know different things about Paul Reid, and there’s a lot of evidence. If he was alive they would have gone to him.

TCR: And Paul Reid was already in prison for the other murders he committed?

SCOTT: He had seven death sentences.

TCR: So if Reid was already in prison, what did he have to lose by admitting to the murdersSoffar was wrongfully serving time for? His silence kept an innocent man in prison.

SCOTT: I just think a lot of people don’t want to confess. This guy already had seven sentences, why not come forward and confess, but it’s just him feeling that that’s the one he got away with.

MELTZER: Well, he also said he was innocent of the things that he did do. He wouldn’t want to admit to having done this other thing when he hadn’t even admitted doing the crimes he was convicted for.

TCR: But in Paul Reid’s case there was evidence that pointed to his culpability?

MELTZER: There’s a lot of evidence that points to it, the problem was that at Max’s trial they wouldn’t let him bring up anything about Paul Reid.  If Max hadn’t died, there was about to be an appeal.

SCOTT: Yeah, in three days.

MELTZER: They could have brought that up in a new trial, and maybe the jury would have thought differently of the confession.

SCOTT: One of the key witnesses never got a chance to testify and new evidence was discovered before he died. We knew Max didn’t do it; we just didn’t have enough to prove that he didn’t do it.

TCR: Did you know when you first met him that he was sick?

SCOTT: No, not when we first interviewed him, but a year or so later we found out that he had liver cancer.

TCR: At Max Soffar’s funeral, which the documentary captures, Chris, you say in his eulogy, “the state killed him.”

SCOTT: He was trying to get exonerated and get better health care. Maybe he could have gotten compensated and paid medical bills for his cancer treatment. But he didn’t make it.

TCR: Did you ever meet with Texas Gov. Rick Perry on issues of wrongful convictions?

SCOTT: Yeah, a couple of times. I didn’t like him then, I don’t like him now. The only time we really met him was dealing with the legislation of compensation, he signed the Timothy Cole Act.

TCR: Your organization is billed as a detective agency, but the services you, Johnnie, and Steven provide extend far beyond investigative work. You provide each other with emotional and financial support as well.

SCOTT: I just put myself as the man with many faces, you know? Because at the end of the day, you have to be a detective, you have to be a counselor, you have all those faces, because even dealing with someone like Isaiah Hill, we had to make sure he was right. We had to make sure we got his birth certificate, his social security card, identification. We had to make sure he had his doctor’s appointments. Made sure he got his meds, so we were doctors, lawyers. We were everything to Isaiah, and to our other clients we are the same way.

TCR: Johnnie, who was wrongfully imprisoned for 26 years on sexual assault charges, died since the documentary came out. Chris, do you want to talk about him?

 Johnnie had the same passion I had, to free as many people as we can before we leave this world.  And Johnnie was the guy who asked good tough questions, but was able to reason with people. We were like good cop, bad cop. I think I was the bad one because I pretty much applied the pressure. He’s pretty nurturing, he looked for the good in pretty much everybody.

TCR: Since Johnnie’s death, have you had any other exonerees come on board? How are you at House of Renewed Hope managing this workload?

SCOTT: No, I didn’t bring any new exonorees on, because our visions are different. We all have different things that we’re good at. Some are good with lobbying with legislation; some are good with reentry, some with investigating cases. I think we all got out and got our own feel of things. You know, I had Steven and Johnnie to help me, but the majority of the people who helped me get exonerated from the district attorney office also work with my organization.

TCR: Although exoneration is the ultimate goal, life post-exoneration is full of challenges. As an exonerated person, is your record fully expunged or do you face the same barriers in registering to vote and finding employment—answering questions about former incarceration on official forms for instance—as someone whose been formerly incarcerated?

I vote every year. My record is expunged. I don’t check any boxes. Some exonorees are not fully exonerated, so they have to check that box, but most of us don’t.

MELTZER: But a lot of exonorees still have the same challenges. Johnnie was in prison for 26 years, and Steven 25 years, and they got out as older men with all that time taken away from them and no way to develop a career. And Chris has done all sorts of entrepreneurial things since he got out, but he’s also had this time taken away from him. From 27 to 40, that’s a pretty important time to develop a career.

That’s the whole point of the compensation, and why it’s needed. If you are struggling with PTSD, you actually need more support. That’s the thing, the parolees get support, they get a little bit of money, it’s not necessarily a great program, but it’s something. Exonorees just get out, that’s why [Chris’ organization] is so important.

TCR: Right, there is not a state-supported system for exonorees, unless they start one for themselves.

SCOTT: Yeah, I think a lot of people look up at Dallas County exonorees because of the [foundation] that we’ve laid. It’s a brotherhood. It’s no longer about us, we’re out, and we’ve been compensated. We’ve been living our lives for 10 years now. We want to pave the way for the men and women who’ve been left behind. Things are much better now than when we first got out. There are more exonorees that you can go to for support and help. We can be each other’s psychiatrists. I can lay on your couch, you can lay on mine, and I can pick your brain because I know pretty much the questions to ask you. What’s going to make you mad? What’s going to trigger your anger? What makes you happy?

And kudos to the women who deal with us because we are screwed up. We are not whole. There is something still missing. I don’t think we’ll ever be completely whole again.

“True Conviction” will air on PBS Channel 13 on Monday, April 30th at 10 pm EST and can be live streamed here. Julia Pagnamenta is a TCR news intern. She welcomes comments from readers.


Payments to Exonerees Attract Predators

When wrongfully convicted people get major compensation payments from state governments or police, many are “hit up for money by family or friends” or are targets of scammers, says an exoneree who advises dozens of them.

Most states compensate people who were wrongfully imprisoned in amounts that can reach millions of dollars. Exonerees can also win settlements from police agencies, and both kinds of awards can attract predators, reports The Marshall Project in the New York Times. North Carolina paid $750,000 to Henry McCollum in 2015 to compensate him for the 30 years that the innocent man spent on death row. Seven months later, he was broke. McCollum, who is intellectually disabled, then began borrowing money at 38 percent interest. McCollum and his half brother, Leon Brown, also intellectually disabled, were demonized and convicted in one of the state’s most notorious rape and murder cases.

McCollum, 54, and Brown, 50, proved virtually helpless as hundreds of thousands of dollars of state compensation were siphoned off by a sister; a lawyer from Orlando, Fl.; a self-proclaimed advocate from Atlanta, and her business partner, a college instructor from Brooklyn. By the time a federal judge intervened last year, no trust had been set up for the brothers and money intended for their care had been spent on predatory loans, exorbitant legal fees, multiple cars, women’s jewelry and children’s toys. Jeffrey Deskovic, an exoneree who established a foundation to help the wrongfully convicted, said he had advised 60 other exonerees on how to manage compensation and the unwanted attention it brings. The experiences of McCollum and Brown are extreme, he said, but the underlying issues are common. “All were hit up for money by family and friends or were targets of scammers,” Deskovic said.