Wrongful Convictions Leave Perpetrators on the Street

May 7th, 2018 by Attorney Dan Carman

Wrongful Convictions Leave Perpetrators on the Street

When you see the news of someone being released from jail after being wrongfully convicted, it’s only natural to sympathize with the person. He or she may have been imprisoned for years, perhaps decades — time that’s lost forever. Maybe what we should also consider is the fact that the person who actually committed the crime may still be out in society committing more crimes.

The Marshall Project tells the story of Jennifer Thompson who was sexually assaulted in 1984. She later picked Ronald Cotton out of a police lineup, and he was convicted and sent to prison. Ten years later he was proven innocent and released.

Incredibly, the two met and eventually co-wrote a book, “Picking Cotton.” They traveled around the country, advocating for laws that could prevent the same mistake from happening to others. The real attacker, Bobby Poole, was identified through DNA samples. He died in prison in 1998.

After the book’s release Thompson was contacted by LuAnn Mullis. She was also a victim of an assault by Poole, months after Cotton was arrested. Poole had been accused of more than twenty crimes after Cotton was arrested. If the criminal justice system had worked correctly, those crimes wouldn’t have happened because Poole would have been in custody or imprisoned.

Thompson married political scientist Frank Baumgartner, who has studied data on wrongful convictions. They discuss wrongful convictions not only because of the injustice to the person convicted, but also because the failures allow criminals to continue to commit crimes.

Baumgartner points out that the criminal justice system is very divided — into the defense and the prosecution — with the crime survivors and victims put on the prosecutors’ side. Thompson has been attacked by some criminal victims because of her work on wrongful conviction, as if pointing out prosecution errors will reflect badly on victims.

He says some blame his wife, as if she picked Cotton even though she knew he didn’t commit the crime. If after a traumatic event a police officer gives the victim photos, he or she may feel compelled to pick one of them. The survivor can be doubly victimized because he or she may be blamed for the injustice of the wrongful conviction.

Baumgartner’s research on data from North Carolina found 36 exonerations, going back to 1943, and in nine of those cases the actual perpetrator was found. Six of them committed 99 subsequent crimes; 35 were felonies and 13 involved violence. He estimates that given the number of crimes, arrests and wrongful prosecutions nationwide, there may be tens to hundreds of thousands of people affected by criminals who are free to commit crimes because someone else is incarcerated for crimes they committed.

A criminal defense attorney’s work is to protect the client and make sure his or her rights are protected to the fullest extent possible. The issue for a defense attorney isn’t whether the client actually committed a crime, but whether the prosecution can prove the client committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt while all the client’s statutory and constitutional rights are respected.

There are often times when the issue isn’t trying to lessen the punishment of a client who did something wrong, it’s trying to make sure that nothing (or as little as possible) is done to an innocent person wrongly accused of a crime. In that situation, the defense attorney is actually doing the prosecution’s job, trying to make sure justice is served by having the actual perpetrator face the consequences of his or her acts — not an innocent person being accused of the crime.

If you or a family member is facing criminal charges, you need a criminal defense attorney who can protect your rights and your future. Contact us today so you can discuss your situation with one of the attorneys at the Lexington, Kentucky-based Carman Law Firm. As criminal defense attorneys with years of experience, we offer thorough, experienced representation.