Naked City

Innocent After Proven Guilty

More than 150 people attended the National Innocence Conference at the Austin Hilton Convention Center Hotel last weekend. Attendees from more than 25 states, Australia, and Canada included attorneys, journalists, students, professors, and people who were incarcerated for crimes they did not commit. Despite the diversity of geography and profession, they shared a common passion: Innocent people should not be incarcerated, and the criminal justice system must be challenged both to prevent and rectify the problem.

The conference opened on Friday night with a panel of people involved in the Tulia drug sting fiasco. Tonya White described how she was indicted for selling narcotics to an undercover police officer, though she had incontrovertible proof that she could not have done so – she was cashing a check at a bank in Oklahoma City at the exact time that she was supposedly selling drugs in Texas. White was one of the lucky ones – she never spent a day in jail. But, as Vanita Gupta, the attorney from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund who represented the Tulia defendants, explained, more than 10% of the African-American population of Tulia did spend time in jail for crimes they did not commit.

The Tulia case is an example of how the system can be corrupted by one bad cop. But, as Larry Marshall, legal director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, explained, most wrongful convictions are not the result of bad faith, but happen because we are all "prisoners of our own perspective." Marshall denounced "the degree to which so many people can be sincerely convinced that they are right, when, objectively, they are wrong. ... It is not that they know everything and don't care, but rather that they really don't know everything."

It is that process of re-examining the case with a different perspective that, according to Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project in New York, can lead to uncovering wrongful convictions. Although Scheck is known for his work in DNA exonerations, DNA is present in a very small portion of criminal cases, and many other factors – such as mistaken eyewitness identification and false confessions – account for conviction of the innocent.

While it may be hard for many to imagine the pain of being incarcerated for a crime that one did not commit, many of the conference participants understand it firsthand. Marshall urged attendees to "use the lessons from [that] pain to prevent this from happening in the future."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

criminal justice, National Innocence Conference, Tulia, Tonya White, Vanita Gupta, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Larry Marshall, Center on Wrongful Convictions, Northwestern University School of Law, Barry Scheck, the Innocence Project

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