Exonerated While Black: America’s Guilty Secret about Convicting Innocents

Picture: State of Louisiana (PD)

Picture: State of Louisiana (PD)

Sadhbh Walshe writes at the Guardian:

It’s hard to imagine a worse fate than being sent to prison or even being sentenced to death for a crime you did not commit. There’s no way of knowing for sure how many of the over 2 million Americans who are currently incarcerated were wrongfully convicted, but studies estimate that somewhere between 2 and 5% of them, which would amount to up to 100,000 people, may be innocent of their crimes.

What we do know, however, is that since 1989, more than 1,000 people, some of whom have spent decades in prison, have been exonerated (pdf). We also know that of that number. more than half were black and male; and their treatment by the criminal justice system, post release, is not a whole lot better than it was prior to their incarceration.

In 1989, the 16-year-old Shareef Cousins was convicted on eyewitness testimony of a murder he didn’t commit, and was sentenced to death. If you review the circumstances of his case – there was no DNA evidence linking Cousin to the crime and there was actual video footage of him playing in a basketball league at the time of the murder – it’s almost impossible to see how he could have been found guilty, never mind sentenced to die. When asked what he thought led to his speedy conviction, during a recent interview with NPR, Cousins attributed his death penalty sentence, without hesitation, to his race:

“I think the most important factor that we cannot turn a blind eye to is that – the character of race, especially here in New Orleans. Anytime that there is a white victim who is murdered, it is more than likely that whoever is convicted of murdering that white victim is going to be sentenced to death.”

He went on to say that in such cases where the victim is white and the perpetrator is black, “someone is going down for that crime and someone is going down for that crime fast.” Apparently, in Cousin’s case, it didn’t matter that the black man who went down for the crime didn’t actually commit it.

Cousins is not the only wrongfully accused black man who feels that his race played a key role in his arrest and conviction. In Dallas, Texas, several exonerees, most of whom are black and male, have formed a group called Freedom Fighters, which is being featured in an upcoming documentary. Freedom Fighters was originally intended to act as a support group for the former prisoners, but has since expanded its role into a quasi-detective agency to investigate cases and help secure the release of other wrongfully incarcerated men and women.

Read more here.

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  • InfvoCuernos

    Its still crazy to me that this sort of prejudice still runs rampant. Aside from the moral wrongness of it, you also have the fact that if you want to stop black on white crime, YOU SHOULD TRY HARDER TO GET THE RIGHT GUY! If you just grab some random black guy off the street and convict him, chances are the real killer is going to realize that he can kill white people with impunity because the authorities will simply railroad some innocent guy for your crime. Unless you have a killer with an extraordinary since of community who is truly racked with guilt for watching innocent people go down for his actions, he’ll definitely kill over and over. I know, I know, you can’t fight this level of stupidity with logic, but still.

  • BuzzCoastin

    my Granddaddy was a chain gang warden in Georgia in the 40′s
    all his prisoners were Black
    while doing a genealogy study
    I discovered he had helped exonerate an escaped prisoner charged with murder
    the newspaper story expressed the dismay of the police caused by his testimony

    I was proud and surprised to see
    that even a chain-gang warden drew the line at railroading Blacks for murder
    a long standing & widespread American tradition