Open Book

When the System Fails

Tales of the Wrongfully Convicted

Magazine Issue
May/June 2017
A headshot of a man

Anatomy of Innocence: Testimonies of the Wrongfully Convicted
Edited by Laura Caldwell and Leslie S. Klinger
304 pages

You can take it as good news or bad news that since 1989, American courts have overturned 2,000 wrongful convictions of serious crimes. This number, reported by the University of Michigan Law School’s National Registry of Exonerations, speaks to the strength of organizations like the Innocence Project, created by attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld in 1992, that work to exonerate the wrongly convicted. According to its estimates, as many as five percent of the US prison population—up to 120,000 people—are innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. Which means that the 2,000 exonerated are the “lucky” ones. Some luck! Anatomy of Innocence: Testimonies of the Wrongfully Convicted presents the real, waking-nightmare stories of 15 men and women wrongfully convicted of unthinkable crimes they didn’t commit, and for which they spent years, sometimes decades, in prison, before being exonerated and freed.

With these representative stories, editors Laura Caldwell and Leslie Klinger bring to Kafkaesque life the harrowing journeys, actual and psychological, from accusation and interrogation to trial, imprisonment, and finally, freedom. Although these victims of our justice system must ultimately reckon with the internal cost of the ordeal and figure out how to reconstruct a semblance of the lives they were robbed of, they also have much to teach us about their hard-earned strategies for survival and resilience, and the persistence of hope in the face of desperate circumstances.

The editors’ astute commentaries further fill readers in about such pertinent but often misunderstood issues as the limits of forensic evidence (despite what many TV shows and films would have us believe), the pervasive influence of bias and racism in singling out individuals who “fit” a preconceived criminal profile, and the host of psychologically manipulative techniques that interrogators can legally use and that, whether intended or not, can end up driving pressured suspects into false confessions.

The already gripping narratives in each chapter are made all the more transfixing by the writing of Sara Paretsky, Lee Child, Laurie King, and other high-profile mystery, detective, and crime writers. A previously unpublished essay by Arthur Miller also appears in the book, making the case against capital punishment, lest someone like Peter Reilly, wrongfully convicted at the age of 18 in 1973 of decapitating his mother, die before his innocence can be proven. Introductions by bestselling author Scott Turow and attorney Barry Scheck warn that human error and psychological blind spots will always play a part in such injustice. That’s why, especially in our current era of renewed calls for law and order, it’s essential to guard against any rush to justice that might lead instead to injustice—at great human cost.

For California exoneree Gloria Killian, the waking nightmare of wrongful conviction began when she was a law student in her early 30’s and the police knocked on her door to ask a few questions about the brutal home invasion and murder of a married couple who happened to be friends of a friend. At first, since she herself had never had any previous brushes with the law, she assumed the police were after her boyfriend, who was on probation for DUI violations. She offered to help however she could. Utterly bewildered by their questions about her own involvement, and despite her knowledge of the justice system, she even initially waived her right to an attorney—“Why would I want an attorney?” she’d asked—thinking that, because she was innocent of the crime, she could quickly set the record straight and clear up whatever misunderstanding had taken place.

But that didn’t happen until after nearly 17 years of wrongful imprisonment. It turns out her conviction had been based on the false testimony of the crime’s actual perpetrator in exchange for a substantial reduction of his prison term—an agreement that the prosecution hadn’t previously revealed to the defense.

Here, as in several of the book’s other cases, the police and the justice system were under pressure to identify and convict a suspect in a high-profile, heinous crime, ASAP. David Bates was 18 and guilty of nothing more than being an African American living in one of the poorer districts in Chicago when he was framed for the murder of a notorious neighborhood drug dealer. In other words, he matched a generic racist criminal profile, and his interrogators kicked, beat, threatened, and tortured him by chaining him for hours to a ring screwed into the wall and simulated suffocation by placing a bag over his head. The result was a false confession and incarceration for 11 years—and residual psychological and physical symptoms that remain, 30 years later.

The Chicago detectives who tortured him were part of a group of 20 who themselves were later convicted and sent to prison for their extreme interrogation tactics of many other African American suspects, who, to their eyes, looked guilty. One of these suspects was 17-year-old church choir member Michael Evans, pressured into a false confession and wrongly convicted of the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl. Adding to the odds against Evans in court was the prosecution’s $1,250 payment to a key witness, and the judge’s refusal to allow a divided jury to declare itself deadlocked, forcing it to reconvene until, under the pressure of group psychology, the holdouts caved and voted for a conviction, which took 26 years to overturn.

Another kind of false assumption—in this case, about medical testimony—combined with the urgency to indict, lead to the wrongful conviction of Audrey Edmonds. She was a white, middle-class wife, mother, and daycare provider in Wisconsin when she was convicted, in 1997, of shaking to death one of the babies in her care—a verdict based on expert medical testimony. It then took 11 years for the case to be reopened and for her to be exonerated, based on new research about the shaken-baby syndrome that invalidated the interpretation of the original findings.

In addition to describing the horrors of finding oneself trapped in these circumstances, many of these stories show the variety of tactics that helped these men and women get through days, months, and years of isolation, imprisonment, stigma, and abandonment by friends and family. On the first night that 43-year-old Ken Wyniemko of Michigan spent in prison after being sentenced to 40 years in a maximum-security prison on 15 counts of sexual assault, he was so overcome with despair that he began tearing up the bed sheets in his cell to hang himself. Suddenly, he felt compelled to stop, kneel, and pray. From that moment, faith that his innocence would ultimately be proven carried him forward for the nearly 10 years he had to endure before being exonerated.

Repeating the motto Semper Fi helped Kirk Bloodsworth of Maryland retain hope of vindication, even while wrongfully imprisoned for eight years on death row for the 1984 murder of a young girl. Putting his Marine training to use, he sometimes pretended he was being held captive as a prisoner of war, and he used meditation techniques to visualize himself in other surroundings altogether. “I would sit on the floor and go crabbing,” he said. “I got so good at it I swear I could hear the water lapping at my boat. That gave me peace.”

Former jazz musician Antoine Day, falsely imprisoned for 10 years for murder and attempted murder, intuited that his mental survival depended on remaining connected to some part of his former self. He lobbied prison officials for, and eventually received, musical instruments to form a jailhouse band with other inmates who shared a passion for music and a need to transcend their present situation. Day, like others, also found escape in reading and exercise, and discovered strength in role models such as Nelson Mandela. Another common thread through all these stories is persistence and purpose, which fueled these men and women to continue to file appeals, write letters to anyone who might conceivably help, and stay focused on faith in their own innocence and hope against hope.

Even so, upon obtaining vindication and freedom, the individuals featured in this book had to find even more inner resolve to begin to build new lives and communities for themselves. Unfortunately, few resources are available to provide necessary help immediately upon release, as Antoine Day discovered when the prison guards discharged him to a Chicago street in the cold and rain. Only by chance did his presence catch the attention of an old friend who happened to be driving by and gave him a lift and a bed to sleep in. To help other exonerees from being so literally left out in the cold, the proceeds from this book will go to the Life After Innocence organization at Loyal University Chicago School of Law.

Yet another challenge is dealing with the anger of injustice. After Jerry Miller spent 26 years in Illinois jails for a rape he didn’t commit, he decided he wouldn’t let the horrors he’d endured rob him of even more years of his life. “The things you can’t control? You can’t let them control you,” he said. “I dealt with my bitterness, and I let it go.” All he wanted was an apology from the state, he decided, which he eventually received from a representative of the state attorney’s office. He received a monetary settlement as well. But those payments, whatever their size, can’t bring back lost years, broken relationships, forgone careers, and other opportunities large and small that make up the fabric of a life.

Although a few of the cases told here have been chronicled in full-length books, I’d have liked the writers to fill in more details about the lives of the falsely accused, especially in the aftermath of their exoneration. Also, I’d have appreciated additional information about such matters as the percentage of cases that Innocence Project organizations actually accept, and what their success rate is. Readers of Anatomy of Innocence can hope that there will be more successes, even while recognizing that the greatest triumph would be to no longer need such organizations. That’s why this book is so inspiring and so dispiriting all at once.


Diane Cole

Diane Cole is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges and writes for The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.