In 1976, Ronnie Long, an African American man, was wrongfully convicted for the rape of a white woman. Found guilty by an all-white jury, Long served 44 years before being exonerated and was eventually given $750,000 in compensation for this legal wrongdoing.
Even so, could any sum of money ever make up for the time Long lost to prison? During those years, not only did his son graduate school, but both of his parents also passed away, according to CNN.
“Everything that transpired to put me behind bars was intentional,” Long told CNN, speaking of the misconduct exhibited in his case.
Long’s story is unfortunately not an isolated instance, and African Americans make up 49% of the exonerees for all crimes, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Black individuals are wrongfully convicted at a disparate rate due to perceived Black criminality, which contributes to prejudicial policing, misconduct by law enforcement and racially biased eyewitnesses.
It is a cycle: due to stereotypes about Black criminality, Black Americans are more likely to be searched by the police, which increases the chance that officers will find something that warrants arrest, which leads to a higher concentration of criminal records in Black neighborhoods. As a result, these communities are more heavily policed, and the cycle continues, according to a thesis by Elizabeth Lattner, in fulfillment for a M.A. of Law, Justice and Culture at the College of Arts and Sciences of Ohio University.
Racially biased policing can lead to official misconduct by law enforcement, which, while occurring in 33% of exonerations of white defendants, occurred in 55% of exonerations of Black individuals, according to Lattner.
One example of this misconduct comes in the form of false confessions. By using coercive tactics such as prolonged questioning, threats and manipulation, officers can convince suspects that admitting their guilt would be more painless than defending themselves. Police officers may also use the planting of evidence and the fabrication of events to incriminate vulnerable suspects. These tactics, Lattner explains, make false confessions a common cause of wrongful convictions.
Individuals may face other legal wrongdoings, by both prosecutors and their own legal defense teams. Prosecutors may conceal crucial evidence from the defense or use jailhouse informants — prisoners who are often rewarded in exchange for information relating to a trial — to prove a defendant’s guilt. Jailhouse informants are especially problematic, as they may lie in order to fit the needs of the prosecution, so that they will be compensated with privileges such as a shortened sentence.
According to the Innocence Project, the information provided by jailhouse informants has contributed to 156 inaccurate convictions.
Even defense teams can commit misconduct, which may lead to the wrongful convictions of their own clients. In the 1990 case of Michael Phillips, an African American man falsely accused of raping a white teenage girl, Phillips pleaded guilty after his lawyer convinced him that he would undoubtedly receive life in prison if the case went to court, according to USA Today.
“In 1990, it felt like slavery was still going strong for me,” Phillips told USA Today. “The deck was stacked against me from Jump Street — like 100-to-1.”
Phillips was afraid that a jury would never believe a Black man over a white woman, according to USA Today. He served 12 years in prison. In part due to official misconduct such as this, African Americans face wrongful convictions at seven times the rate of white individuals, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
Also problematic is the reliance on eyewitnesses in court, who may be given the power to incriminate individuals on little to no concrete basis. According to Lattner, eyewitnesses most often give inaccurate testimonies in cases involving Black defendants. These individuals may confuse suspects if they both have characteristics that are typical of Black Americans, which creates a dangerous environment in which testimonies can become based on racial profiling rather than reason.
If we do not educate ourselves on how the perception of Black criminality is perpetrated by the criminal justice system itself, it is likely that the issue of wrongful convictions will persist. The Innocence Project offers a variety of reading materials, donation and volunteer opportunities, and other options to get involved in the fight to end this injustice. Learning about their current cases and signing petitions to protect the freedom of their clients will be crucial in preventing any more of these wrongdoings.