There has been much said about the general public’s ability to trust the criminal justice system. When certain other professions make mistakes or errors, it won’t likely cause someone to lose their freedom or their life. But that very thing happens in this country, the criminal court gets convictions wrong all the time. The facts are that as you read this, there are currently men and women serving time in a prison, that are completely innocent of the crimes they were convicted of. This is undoubtedly a huge problem that needs to be rectified. Only the guilty should ever see the insides of prisons for extended periods of time. There are people however that work long, hard and tirelessly to overturn the wrongful convictions of the innocent. Some do not succeed until the victim has already served decades in prison and lost most of their life to the system. Listed below are the top 10 convictions that were overturned.
10. William Dillon (1981)
William Dillion spent almost 27 years in a Florida prison for a murder that he did not commit. Just shy of his 50th birthday he was released, after being wrongfully incarcerated since he was 21 years old. What convicted him was shoddy and questionable eyewitness and jail informant testimony. He was convicted of beating victim James Dvorak to death. Testimony was unreliable in this case because the ex-girlfriend who originally testified against Dillon, admitted two weeks later that the police had threatened her with the possibility of getting 25 years in prison as an accessory to murder. Dillon filed multiple appeals in the first few years after he was convicted, which were all denied. In 1996 his team sought DNA testing, the one physical piece of evidence from the crime, a bloody yellow t-shirt did not match the DNA of Dillion, thus his conviction was overturned and he was set free. He was awarded $1.3 million dollars from the state legislature and speaks to groups around the country about his experience. He’s also a talented singer-songwriter, and has an album aptly titled “Black Robes and Lawyers.”
9. Phillip Bivens (1980)
Phillip Bivens spent three full decades behind the bars of a Mississippi prison for a crime that he did not commit. He spent 30 years of his life paying for something that he just didn’t do. Bivens was the victim of a wrongful conviction dealing with the rape and murder of a woman in 1979. Along with Bivens, two other men were arrested for the crime. They all were coerced into confessions by police who threatened them with the death penalty. However, all three confessions were different from one another and factually inaccurate. Upon DNA evidence being gathered and tested in 2010, it was concluded that all three men, including Bivens were innocent and their immediate exonerations and releases were ordered. Two of the men unfortunately died before being released. So although they knew they were innocent, they died in prison. After serving a 30 year sentence for something that he did not do, Bivens was released, left to live the rest of his life as a free man, when he had in fact always been an innocent one. Bivens has kept a low profile since his release. He gardens in his spare time and stays in specified housing for exonerated prisoners.
8. Randolph Arledge (1984)
Randolph Arledge was convicted of the brutal murder of Carolyn Armstrong, who was found partially naked and stabbed over 40 times on a dirt road in Texas. Based on testimony that wasn’t true, two people by the names of Bennie Lamas and Paula Lucas claimed that Arledge admitted to them that he had murdered a young girl while driving from Houston. What’s more is that Arledge did actually have sufficient alibi’s for the time around when the murder took place. But not even that plus the lack of physical evidence saved him. He spent 14 years in prison for a crime that he did not commit, until 2011 when DNA testing was performed on pertinent evidence, and came back connecting another man to the brutal murder of Ms. Armstrong. Arledge was swiftly released from prison, but obviously cannot get back those 14 years he spent it prison, nor the emotional, mental and physical ramifications of that time. Arledge will be compensated $80,000 for every single year that he was jailed. He was released earlier this year and has been spending the majority of his time with his family.
7. Joseph Abbitt (1991)
Joseph Abbitt spent 14 years of his life serving time for a crime that he did not take part in. The charges were rape, burglary and kidnapping. Two sisters were raped by an intruder that came into their house one early morning in 1991. Though the sisters didn’t have a good vantage point to see their attackers face, they claimed that it was Joseph Abbitt who lived in their neighborhood and had been to their house in the past. Although DNA was found on a piece of the girl’s clothing that did not belong to Abbitt, the courts deemed it not connected to the attack itself. Abbitt even had an alibi that he was working during the time that the crime took place. His employer testified to that fact, but because a time card couldn’t be entered into evidence, the alibi did not stand. Based solely on the eyewitness testimony of the girls, Abbitt was convicted. In 2005, the evidence went through further DNA testing and it was found that the DNA in the rape kits was not Abbitt’s. He was released in 2009 after maintaining his innocence the entire time. After being released from prison, Abbitt became outspoken about his ordeal. He even spearheaded an investigation into over 2,000 inmates that would benefit from thorough DNA testing.
6. Calvin Willis (1981)
Calvin Willis spent more than 21 years in a prison serving a sentence for a crime that he didn’t commit. He was released September 18, 2003 when post conviction DNA was able to exclude him from being the perpetrator of a rape committed in 1981. When he was convicted it was for life without the possibility of parole. One girl was assaulted and raped in a small Louisiana community, while her two sisters were also in the house and their mother was at work. The police interviews with the girl were not cohesive and differed tremendously throughout the investigation process. It seems the young girl became confused, one time she said that the assailant had a cowboy hat, then he had on cowboy boots. The little girl identified Willis based on the boots he wore to court alone, she never correctly identified him by his face. Throughout the trial Willis maintained his innocence, saying that the only reason he was in the neighborhood at the time was because he had family living there. In 1998, the case was reviewed and all DNA evidence was run. Upon results being confirmed, Calvin Willis was excluded from any possible involvement in the crime. He was released on September 18, 2003. Willis has had a tough time since being released, the state of Mississippi compensated him $150,000 but the money eventually ran out. Willis is constantly seeking employment but no one seems to want to hire him.
5. Julie Rea Harper (1977)
On the night of October 13, 1977, Julie Harper awoke to the sounds of her son screaming in his room. She ran to his room and didn’t find him, but found a masked man, who she fought with and whom left her unconscious. When the police arrived, Julie was just regaining consciousness, she was obviously dazed and had a cut on her arm and a black eye. Police found the dead body of her son in the house, he had been stabbed multiple times. Julie, although her story never wavered or changed, became the lead suspect. Namely because her ex-husband accused her of being the one who killed their son. She was convicted in 2000. Two years later she made a very public plea on 20/20 that caught the eye of a high profile attorney who took on her case. That lawyer was already involved with a case dealing with convicted murderer Tommy Lynn Sells, who recounted the same story that Harper had verbatim, about the night that her son was murdered. Sells admitted to the crime and Harper was released. Harper works with a group called Women’s Project that focuses solely on the wrongful convictions of women.
4. Ronald Cotton (1984)
An assailant broke into two different apartments on separate occasions, raped a woman, and stole some of her belongings. Ronald Cotton spent 10 and a half years of his life paying for these crimes, although he did not commit either one. One of the victims identified Cotton in a photo lineup. However, the other victim picked a completely different man out of the lineup when she was questioned. It turned out that a man that was already serving time in a local prison, told an inmate that he had committed the crimes that Cotton had been convicted of. Once that got out, DNA was reexamined and it was verified that Cotton had nothing to do with neither rapes or burglaries. He was exonerated and released about spending over a decade behind bars. The victim who personally identified Ronald Cotton as the perpetrator now speaks opening about the mind’s ability to correctly remember trauma and is an advocate for more than one eyewitness testimony for a conviction. The victim and Cotton also keep in contact with one another and consider the other a friend.
3. The Norfolk Four (1997)
Four sailors confessed to the rape and murder of Michelle Moore-Bosko. However, after they were convicted all four of them claimed that their confessions had been false and coerced. When the case was originally reopened, the investigators were skeptical. They couldn’t believe that all four of the men would give false confessions. But once the evidence of the case was reviewed, it became clear that the confessions and the evidence did not coincide with one another. It was later discovered that there is only one other person’s DNA in the house where Michelle was murdered, none of which matched the four sailors who had confessed. Investigators also later discovered that the physical condition of the victim and the facts of the crime scene was indicative of a single-offender crime. One of the sailors, Eric Wilson has been released but the other three still remain behind bars. But lawyers associated with the Innocence Project are working tirelessly to exonerate the three that are still in jail. Wilson has kept an extremely low profile since being released from prison.
2. Darryl Hunt (1984)
What makes this entry so unbelievable is that Darryl Hunt was convicted for the same murder two separate times. What’s more is that even after his innocence was proven in 1994, it took 10 additional years to exonerate and free him. That’s how crazy, messed up and convoluted the system can sometimes be. In 1984, Deborah Sykes was raped and murdered in North Carolina. An eyewitness tentatively identified Hunt as the man that he saw speaking to Sykes the morning of her attack. Hunt maintained his innocence, he even took the stand in his own defense, telling the court that he had never meet Ms. Sykes and wasn’t at all involved in the crime. On appeal, the conviction was overturned because of evidence that should not have been admitted. However Hunt was tried again. All because he didn’t take a plea deal, which included him admitting to the crime. So he was convicted a second time. Hunt spent eighteen and a half years in prison and was finally released when the DNA at the crime scene matched another man already serving time for a murder sentence. Since being released, he has founded his own organizations called the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice and Darryl Hunt Freedom Fighters that help wrongfully convicted men and women.
1. The Central Park 5 (1989)
This entry is number one because it is probably the most well known, as it has garnered a ton of publicity and been featured on many specials regarding wrongful convictions. There was even a documentary filmed about it that recently aired on PBS. A female jogger was brutally attacked and raped one night in Central Park. She was beaten almost within an inch of her life and barely survived. Once she fully recovered, she had absolutely zero recollection of that night or the attack. Five men by the names of Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise who were all being questioned in regards to other activities that took place in the park that night were connected to the attack. After extensive police interrogations, all five of these men, or actually boys as they were all between the ages of 14-16, confessed to the crime. All the details included in the five confessions did not match nor had any type of congruity, but yet the confessions are what convicted them. It wasn’t until another man, already jailed confessed to the crime, that the exoneration proceedings for the Central Park 5 took place. All five of the men have been involved in speaking out about their lives, experiences and ordeals since being released from prison. There is a striking and terrifying trend here that needs to be stopped at once. No more innocent lives should be wrongfully spent behind bars.
By Serene Hitchcock