Monday, February 18, 2008

The Burden of Innocence

This past week in punishment we've been watching the Frontline documentary "The Burden of Innocence", which explores the plight of the wrongfully convicted after they have been released.

Here's a brief summary of where the six individuals featured in the story are today, from the Frontline website:

Clyde Charles: As a condition of his release from state prison, Clyde signed a waiver in which he agreed not to seek damages for his wrongful imprisonment. In March 2000, however, he filed a federal lawsuit against the prosecutors of Terrebonne Parish, claiming that they had blocked his access to DNA testing. In February 2003, with the help of State Sen. Cleo Fields, Terrebonne Parish offered Clyde a settlement: a meager $200,000, $70,000 of which will go to his lawyer. Clyde has now completed his rehabilitation program and is back in Houma.

Frederick Daye: Daye returned to Iowa and eventually married another high school sweetheart, Castine. These days, he wakes up early with nowhere to go. He begins his day drinking a quart of beer, nursing it well into the afternoon. He goes to his aunt's house and plays cards with his sister and cousins. He says he can't work because of his emotional distress. He has not received any compensation. With the help of his lawyer, Dwight Ritter, he has appealed to the California Board of Compensation asking for $100 for every day he spent in prison.

Neil Miller: In March 2006 the city of Boston agreed to pay Neil Miller $3.2 million to settle the wrongful conviction suit he had filed in 2003. Miller's lawyers, Howard Friedman and Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld, alleged that testimony in their lawsuit shows the Boston police manipulated evidence to help prosecutors win a conviction. Following the city's settlement, Miller told the Boston Globe "It's still not over [because] there are still other guys who are sitting up there because of this forensic guy [who manipulated evidence]. Until they're cleared, everything isn't fine with me. It's not over."

Anthony Robinson: Sen. [Rodney] Ellis helped raise funds to pay for Robinson's tuition to the Thurgood Marshall Law School. Robinson graduated from law school in 2006 and is pursuing a degree in Chinese law with plans to work as a consultant in international trade and law. The prosecution still maintains Robinson is guilty.

Dennis Fritz: Fritz and [Ron] Williamson subsequently filed a civil suit against several parties involved in their arrest and imprisonment and settled for an undisclosed sum of money. Fritz and his mother live in Kansas City, where they are trying to enjoy some of the comforts the settlement money can provide.

Ron Williamson: On Dec. 4, 2004, Williamson died in a nursing home at the age of 51. As reported by The New York Times, his sister Annette said that he had recently been diagnosed as having cirrhosis of the liver.

As I also pointed out in class, the case of Ron Williamson (and defacto, Dennis Fritz) was the focus of the John Grisham book "The Innocent Man" published in 2006. Williamson spent 11 years on Okalhoma's death row, including coming five days within an execution date, before being exonerated in 1999.

I haven't read a Grisham book since "The Pelican Brief" in college, but I highly recommend "Innocent Man" for its "true crime" feel and detail to important facts which the documentary, obviously, didn't have time to go into. Grisham really produces a non-fiction, riveting tale on the profound price Williamson and Fritz paid in this miscarriage of justice in Oklahoma...a price Williamson paid, ironically and ultimately, with his life.

As noted in the documentary, these types of miscarriages of justice don't happen to lawyers or doctors or the power-elite in society. Instead, they only ever happen to those who have the least available resources to defend themselves from such outrages. And worse, as noted above in the case of Robinson, questions of guilt still haunt many of these men, even after DNA testing has ruled them out.

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