Foon Rhee

Foon Rhee: Innocent and behind bars

Richard Alex Williams, who was acquitted for a 1996 murder in Sacramento, is one of a record 149 people exonerated nationwide in 2015.
Richard Alex Williams, who was acquitted for a 1996 murder in Sacramento, is one of a record 149 people exonerated nationwide in 2015.

Way too many crimes are going unsolved. Dozens of the guilty are literally getting away with murder each year. When, for example, will someone have the courage to come forward and help police make an arrest in the shooting death last November of Grant High football player Jaulon “JJ” Clavo?

Yet on the other side of the ledger, it’s also increasingly clear that many innocent people are in prison.

According to a report out Wednesday, 149 wrongfully convicted people were exonerated across the country in 2015, a record. They had served an average of 14 1/2 years in prison, and they included 58 homicide cases, also an all-time high. Nineteen convicted killers were serving life sentences, and five had been sentenced to death.

Even more troubling, three-quarters of the homicide cases involved concealing evidence, allowing witnesses to lie or other official misconduct, says the National Registry of Exonerations. More than two-thirds of the convicted killers were minorities, and half were African American. And 22 of these false murder convictions were based on confessions, most from defendants who were under 18, mentally ill, intellectually disabled or a combination of both.

That’s scary for anyone who cares about fair and equal justice. Just imagine if it were you or someone you love wrongly behind bars.

There were five exonerations last year in California, tied for fifth most among the states, according to the registry. They included Richard Alex Williams, who was acquitted in his third trial in Sacramento County for murder after making his own closing argument to the jury. He had always maintained that he didn’t gun down a man in south Sacramento and that a witness had misidentified him, though he owned the car involved. Williams, who was convicted in 1998 and serving a life sentence, was released last November.

The others were Michael Hanline, a convicted murderer in Ventura County cleared in part by DNA evidence; Jamal Trulove, serving 50 years to life for a slaying in San Francisco; Luis Vargas, convicted of sexual assault in Los Angeles County; and Larry Pohlschneider, who was convicted of child molestation in Tehama County and whose case was championed by the Northern California Innocence Project.

Since 1989, there have been more than 1,700 exonerations nationwide; the annual number has more than doubled since 2011.

That’s a lot of people who spent a lot of time locked up for something they didn’t do. And odds are that it’s only the proverbial tip of the iceberg; these are the cases where the miscarriage of justice was the most obvious, or that attracted public and media attention or were taken up by advocacy groups. The registry says the number of wrongful convictions is likely in the thousands each year.

With the popularity of true-crime shows, including “Making a Murderer” on Netflix, this issue is getting more attention. More in law enforcement are taking responsibility for trying to fix mistakes.

“Increasingly, prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys are acknowledging the systemic problem of wrongful convictions,” said the report’s author, Samuel Gross, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, where the registry was started in 2012.

“That’s a welcome change, but it’s just a start,” he said in a statement. “We’ve only begun to address this problem systematically.”

For instance, only 24 of more than 2,300 local prosecutors’ offices have a separate conviction-integrity unit that specifically looks for people who should be freed. They accounted for one-third of the exonerations last year. If those units were more widespread, the numbers would surely be higher.

Five counties in California have units, but they have produced a total of just six exonerations. Los Angeles County started its unit last year and Yolo County in 2014. Neither has exonerated anyone yet.

Though it is not recognized by the registry as a separate unit, Sacramento County has a Justice, Training and Ethics Unit that examines claims of innocence, responds to accusations of prosecutorial misconduct and reviews requests for DNA and other scientific testing.

The office, with two full-time attorneys, has handled about 10 cases since it was created in November 2013. It hasn’t been involved in any exonerations, but a couple of cases are pending. Chances are that sooner or later it will find a wrongful conviction.

“You’d be foolish to say they don’t exist,” says Steve Grippi, Sacramento’s chief deputy district attorney.

The number of these integrity units has doubled since 2013. While some are aggressive, others are criticized as window dressing. One in Harris County, Texas (home to Houston), accounts for nearly half of the 151 exonerations secured by these units since 2003. Last year, it generated 42 of the 54 exonerations in Texas, by far the most in the nation. Many of them were drug-possession cases in which there were no illegal drugs. The unit in Brooklyn, N.Y., exonerated six convicted murderers last year, half the national total for these units.

The registry shows again how much power prosecutors have, not just to look for wrongful convictions, but also to press charges or not, to seek the death penalty and to offer plea deals when no crime may have actually occurred.

Yes, prisoners claim all the time that they didn’t do it, but more of them than we may want to admit are telling the truth.