Famous Cases of Injustice and Wrongful Conviction
Unjust incarceration of any man lances all men’s freedom
Given our understanding of time as the most fundamental and irreplaceable aspect of life, to steal even a second of it constitutes the cruelest of thefts. No heartbeat can be reclaimed, nor is any fetid breath of prison air returned by the most exhilarating lungful of wind.
Though the system is meant to be wholly objective, every participant in the judicial process cannot help but bring a value system to his view of the crime and suspect/s in question. The renowned lawyer Clarence Darrow once said he had never known a jury to find against a defendant they liked, and vice versa.
One private investigator, aware of the danger of bias, stated that, regarding one case, when at first believing the supposed perpetrators to be guilty, he searched for any evidence which might prove them innocent. Later, convinced of their innocence, he strove to find proof of their guilt.
Certain cases stir public rage to a point where the police are expected to apprehend at least a probable suspect. Failure to do so can result in unfounded attacks as to lack of effort. Once such a suspect has been found, the police may feel constrained to do all they can to validate their decision. This expectation may then be transmitted by a witness in formulating testimony.
This is illustrated in the Ian McEwan prize-winning book, Atonement. Here, a pubescent girl on summer break from her school is impelled by her middle-class parents’ neglect, to rely on her fantasies for companionship. While rooted in reality, she soon becomes the primary witness in the conviction of an innocent young man for the rape of her cousin. Ultimately, her belief in the occurrence and identities of the parties involved were completely erroneous.
This novel presents the dilemma of many such witnesses. The girl, lonely and thirsting for approval and recognition, noticed, in subtle ways, that when she gave those answers leading towards the guilt of the accused, the police commended her. Conversely, when voicing her genuine doubts, these same officers grew annoyed and disgruntled.
The expected response may not be real evidence
Thus, when unsure, she supplied those responses which seemed most congruent with the desired framework. These answers were the main factor in forcing the accused to be tried, convicted and imprisoned.
This scenario encapsulates the progress of pressure travelling from the public to the police, police to a witness, and the witness to the judicial system, ending with an accused.
However unsound the evidence, the public has obtained its catharsis, the police force has shown its zeal, one or more witnesses has been brought forward, a verdict reached and a sentence pronounced /instituted. Therefore, everyone has been freed from fear and exempted from blame-except the defendant.
In modern terms, one of the gravest injustices in the judicial system has sprung from false accusations of rape. Prior to DNA testing, it is horrifying to think of how many men have spent years behind bars or were put to death, due to such false allegations. During a time when religious mysticism thrived, a far more insidious allegation could result in a death sentence. Given the fact that priests and bishops were the only men nuns encountered, it was natural for their repressed passions to thrive on imagined encounters with the most charismatic among them.
An amorous priest
Borne in 1590, Father Urbain Grandier seems to have viewed his opportunity to become a priest more as a career than a vocation. Thus, assigned to the French village of Loudon, he exploited his charm to seduce a number of maidens, shielded by his vow of chastity from later claims and condemnations.
Dangerous desires can be fatal
Revenge of the rejected
According to Aldous Huxley’s account in his 1952 book, Devils of Loudon, Jeanne of the Angels, the Mother Superior of a French Ursuline convent, requested Grandier to be her private confessor. Grandier’s polite refusal seems to have stirred emotions which this long-term nun had kept submerged, perhaps even from herself. In any event, her rage, once ignited, vulcanized into vengeance.
This retaliation took the form of accusing Father Grandier of having seduced her by assuming the guise of a demon. Like a virus, this belief soon engulfed nearly every nun in the convent. Their terror at these supposed rapes was displayed in public convulsions and seizures. A number of exorcisms were deemed vital in order to redeem their souls from those demons which might otherwise taint their minds by impurities.
Cardinal de Richelieu 1585 to 1642 French clergyman, and Secretary of State
Despite his arrest, interrogation and trial by an Ecclesiastical (church) court, Grandier was acquitted. Unfortunately, this exoneration spurred his arrogance into a sense of invincibility. Living in an era when the interests of church and state were intertwined, Grandier’s public debate with the renowned Cardinal de Richelieu the King's Chief Minister planted antagonism. Later, Grandier’s ultimate blunder lay in his publishing a strong critique of Richelieu’s policies.
Enraged by this public attack, Richelieu reopened the case against Grandier initiated by the Ursuline nuns. Although they brought no further charges, Richelieu appointed a relative of the Mother Superior Jeanne of the Angels as his chief inquisitor. Soon, Grandier was found guilty of the charge he had previously been acquitted. Hence, he was consigned to be burnt alive on the stake as a prelude to the hell which seemed about to consume him.
In an effort to lessen the ultimate pain of Grandier’s burning, one executioner planned to strangle him with the rope meant to bind him to the stake. Having anticipated this plan, monks tied the rope into complicated knots so as to render this final act of mercy beyond feasibility.
Grandier’s death viewed from our vantage point
Urbain Grandier lived from 1590 until 1634, a reasonable life span for his time. Still, we cannot help but wish he could have met with a gentler end. The acceptance of wrongful conviction is a fairly recent addition to our legal lexicon. Still, the re-opening of Grandier’s seduction case, with no further evidence from the nuns, leaves no doubt that it was intended to free Richelieu from Grandier’s undermining influence. Viewed in these terms, it constituted an early, unacknowledged case of wrongful conviction.
- In our next case, efforts to exploit an innocent farmhand were defeated by forensic science.
Time behind bars can be measured in heartbeats
Charles Stielow’s release, after two years’ delay
The 1916 New York case of People v. Stielow has its place in legal history due to its being the first case to force the U.S. judicial system to accept new developments in what would come to be known as forensic science.
Charles Stielow was endowed with outstanding physical strength and a willingness to work an exhausting number of hours. At the same time, he struggled with learning disabilities. In truth, in the context of Stielow’s case, this limitation need not have proved problematic.
Stielow as husband, father and employee
Stielow had married a local girl and fathered two children. Like many family men of his day, he supported his wife and children by his labors on nearby farms. Indeed, given his time and community, agricultural work was of far more worth than were literacy or any mental acuity. Thus, he was hired by the landowner Charles B. Phelps. While Phelps was engaged in disputes with others living nearby, there was no indication of any conflict or animosity between Phelps and Stielow.
A susceptible suspect
Still, when the corpses of Phelps and his housekeeper Marjorie Wilcott were found on Phelps’ land on the morning of March 12, 1915, police investigators focused on Stielow. Arguably, this assumption was based on the fact that those closest to a victim involved in any murder or those likely to have last seen him alive, are the first to be examined.
Stielow’s likelihood as the killer was confirmed when a supposed ballistics expert testified to the bullets found in these two bodies matching those contained from a pistol found during a search of Stielow’s home.
Further framing and increasing injustice
Once arrested, Stielow’s illiteracy and lack of verbal astuteness became a treasure trove to those determined to convict him. Hence, police soon produced a “confession” written down for Stielow by a “helpful interrogator”.
Fortunately, not all of those present were willing to connive in this treachery. Though recording devices were embryonic, a skeptic among the group of accusers flipped a switch connected to a type of Dictaphone machine, rendering it irrefutable that detectives had changed Stielow’s words in order to conform to the confession they strove to elicit. Later, the fact of the language and grammar in which this written confession was phrased fell beyond Stielow’s skills. Still, he remained in jail, under sentence of death.
A justified claim for clemency
In addition to this surreptitious recording, those smug enough to believe they had ensnared Stielow underestimated his inner bronze, equivalent to his physical prowess. Prevailing on prison officials, he was able, after evading two confirmed dates for execution, to generate further concern for the injustice of his death sentence.
Thus, prior to the carrying out of his third execution, an investigator studied the striations of various bullets. At that time, it was not known that the faint indentations of any bullet are marked by the gun from which it is fired. After numerous experiments, this investigator determined these markings were not consistent with those of Stielow’s ostensibly death-dealing pistol.
Perjury by an expert witness
Confronted with this proof, the original “expert” admitted having perjured himself in order to conform to the expected outcome. Thus, in 1918, that society which had all but erased Stielow in the penultimate way by putting him to death, was left with no choice but to free him to rejoin his wife and children.
As we view this case, we feel a sense of relief at the reprieve of an industrious, innocent man after years of needless confinement. Still, Stielow’s case compels us to question how many innocent men and women have gone to their deaths due to false or inadequate evidence.
The murder of Rachel Manning
While the results of DNA testing are far from infallible, its discovery has been, to the judicial system, analogous to the scientific ability of splitting the atom.
The case of Rachel Manning illustrates the crucial nature of this means of testing. On the night of December 9th 2000, nineteen-year-old Rachel Manning and former live-in partner Barri White attended a party together, and then went onto a local nightclub. During these two events, a significant amount of alcohol was doubtless consumed. At some point, White became involved in an argument with other pub patrons. This resulted in him returning to his lodgings, leaving Ms. Manning on her own.
At any rate, Rachel later phoned White from a public phone booth to say she was lost and stranded, pleading with him to meet her at a given location. White then made every effort to come to her aid.
A failed effort to rescue
The seriousness of White’s search was attested to by a fellow lodger, Keith Hyatt. White prevailed on Hyatt to drive him, in his van, in an attempt to find Rachel. When she could not be found at or near the specified spot, the two young men drove some distance around the surrounding area, but to no avail. When White phoned her apartment, her flat-mates told him she had neither returned home nor, phoned them to let them know her whereabouts. Hence, with mounting alarm, white and his friend continued to search with diminishing hopes.
Your liberty in their hands
Barri Whites indictment
Two days later, when Manning’s body was found, it became clear she had been strangled. In addition, evidence showed her facial features to have been smashed and disfigured by a vehicular steering lock.
Tragically for Barri White, as the last known person to have seen her alive, became the logical suspect. Hence, all too soon, the police built a case against White, which encompassed his friend Hyatt. So scanty was their evidence that much of it drew on the fact that during their live-in liaison, White and Manning often argued to an extreme degree. Indeed, violence took place. Rachel had during one argument twice punched White and missing with another punch had cut her hand.
Still, despite this phantom evidence, in April 2002, White was convicted of the murder, and sentenced to 17 years imprisonment. In addition, Hyatt was convicted of perverting the course of justice by having assisted White in creating a false alibi and sentenced to 5 years.
Conviction quashed and defendant released
Then in 2005 a BBC television documentary called “Rough Justice” delved into and undermined the evidence used at trial. The main cause for concern was that DNA found on the steering lock could not be matched with White’s. The original police investigation was dubbed incompetent and the court trial a joke. Nonetheless, White was forced to endure a retrial in 2008.
Despite this grueling re-trial, White’s acquittal freed him from both imprisonment and any taint of having committed this murder.
Who murdered Rachel Manning?
Two years later In May 2010, Shahidul Ahmed aged 42, was arrested for a separate crime of a sexual nature. During the course of the investigation, his DNA sample was compared to the National Databank (NDNAD) and matched with that taken from the steering lock utilized to disfigure Rachel Manning’s face.
Following two trials; in September 2013 Ahmed was found guilty of murdering by strangulation Rachel Manning and he was jailed for life.
Guilty or not the effect is the same
Barry George and the Murder of Jill Dando
Jill Dando born in 1961 was a popular but controversial television news presenter and journalist. On the 26 April 1999 on her doorstep she was murdered via a single gunshot into her head from a 9 mm pistol. When the shot was discharged the gun barrel had been pressed hard against her temple; hence limiting the sound of the gunshot and any blood splatter.
Hard contact assassination
This type of execution is known as “hard contact” and is generally conducted by a professional assassin, first by immobilizing the victim, and ensuring a single shot would kill. As Dando had recently reported on conflicts in central Europe, there was good reason to suspect she was the target of a revenge assassination. However following an investigation by the police this theory was dismissed.
Due to public and media pressure the police searched for a suspect nearer to home. Over a year after her death police arrested a local man Barry George in May 2000, and 4 days later charged him with murder. 14 months later he stood trial and was convicted of her murder.
Gun powder residue
Initially, the police had no real evidence other than George’s infatuation with Dando and a string of petty crimes which included impersonating celebrities, and two assault charges. Over a year later forensic investigators examined clothing worn by George and found a microscopic particle that may have been residual powder from a gunshot.
George had a history of learning difficulties and behavioral disorders and adopted various names and personas. In later life he was prosecuted for impersonating a policeman, and received publicity for dressing up as a rock star when appearing in court.
During the Dando investigation George was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, possible paranoia and several types of personality disorders including obsessive, and narcissistic. He had a low IQ estimated at 75 and suffered with epilepsy.
In September 2006 the BBC television program “Panorama” aired a documentary about the conviction which highlighted the issues regarding the evidence of the gunshot powder residue, and George’s psychiatric condition.
The conviction was quashed
On 5 November 2007 at the court of appeal George’s defense team claimed that a single microscopic particle of gunshot residue on Georges clothing found a year later could not link him to the crime. They described several ways in which the contamination could have happened while the clothing was in the possession of the police. Forensic experts now agreed that the particle was more likely to have come from a source other than by George firing a gun. If this evidence had been known at the original trial it was unlikely that George would have been found guilty. Hence the appeal was allowed and the conviction quashed.
However George still had to endure a retrial on 9 June 2008. The original scientific evidence regarding the gunshot residue was not admissible, and fresh evidence placed George elsewhere at the time of the shooting. George was acquitted on 1st August 2008.
From our current perspective, it is tempting to allow ourselves to feel a bit smug and complacent regarding past wrongful convictions. We would not, for instance, have executed someone akin to Father Grandier. First, evidence of seduction by a man transformed into a demon would not be allowed to pass the most basic judicial threshold. In addition, in the absence of newly-discovered evidence, no case could be reopened due to a private grudge by an authority figure, no matter how eminent.
Still, during our more rational time, there is no question, as in the Stielow case, of outright perjury being deployed in order to conform to police expectations. In addition, reluctance to set forth a death sentence can be passed on, freeing the consciences of those most involved.
One U.S. Supreme Court justice stated that the court need not feel absolute responsibility for such a sentence, given that the state governor, when approached, renders the final decision. If this governor is conflicted as to his allowing a given defendant to face execution, his choice can be based on the verdict of the Supreme Court. Furthermore, if his hopes for re-election or political advancement tilt his decision a fraction, it can never be proven.
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© 2014 Colleen Swan