Book cover of <em>Actual Innocence</em>, by Barry Scheck and others

The following was posted in 2001.

Review of Actual Innocence: Five Days to Execution and Other Dispatches from the Wrongly Convicted, by Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld and Jim Dwyer. Doubleday, 2000, 298 pp.

Reviewed by Mary Meehan

Robert Lee Miller, Jr., a man of African-American and Choctaw descent, spent many years on an Oklahoma death row for murders he did not commit. He once told a lawyer what it was like. "You know, I'm a country boy," he said. "Grew up outdoors, huntin' and fishin'." In prison, though, he never "saw the sun go up or down, never walked under the moon at night, the whole time I was in here. Never heard a bird singing, or saw a squirrel running in my path. Never felt the wind on my back or the rain in my face."

According to Actual Innocence, Miller had been a drug user, but his biggest brush with the law had come from "not paying parking tickets." But when detectives tried to determine who had raped and killed two elderly women near his home, Miller made the mistake of trying to help them. He said that he had special powers to "see things through the killer's eyes" (a belief that may have resulted from his drug use). A detective, of course, played him like a violin in order to extract a confession from him. Miller--using rumors he had picked up in the neighborhood and from news stories, plus many guesses--kept talking and soon found himself indicted, convicted and sentenced to death.

A young public defender, though, discovered that there had been another major suspect. She arranged for DNA testing; it cleared Miller and implicated the other man. Yet the prosecutor refused to admit error, keeping Miller behind bars for years and eventually trying to persuade the actual murderer to get a lighter sentence for himself by implicating Miller as a helper. When the real killer refused the plea bargain, the prosecutor finally backed off, and Miller was released in 1998.

His is one of many appalling stories in Actual Innocence, which focuses on wrongful convictions for murder and rape. Two of the book's authors, New York attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, started the Innocence Project, which helps clear innocent people through DNA testing. The third author, Jim Dwyer, is a New York Daily News columnist.

The authors note that DNA testing is now widely used and clears many suspects before trial. But some prosecutors still resist DNA testing of old evidence, even when a life is at stake and even though DNA testing has been greatly refined since many of the old cases were tried.

Actual Innocence stresses several key factors that lead to wrongful convictions. Many eyewitnesses are confused about what they have seen, and some detectives are all too willing to coach them in order to nail a suspect. Some prosecutors are so eager to convict that they suppress evidence suggesting a suspect's innocence. Indeed, the authors say, "criminal investigations can become echo chambers, where answers are shaped by what people believe ought to be true rather than what they know to be the facts."

Most victims of the echo chambers are workingmen, often minorities and often down on their luck. Some have mental problems, and some have been involved in petty crime.

Calvin Johnson, Jr., a young black college graduate in Atlanta, was arrested for marijuana possession, did not have money for a lawyer, and compounded his problems by burglarizing a house. He served 14 months behind bars and "became a chronic suspect."

In 1983 two rape victims identified Johnson as their assailant. A mixed-race jury acquitted him of one rape; but an all-white jury convicted him of the other, and the judge sentenced him to life in prison. There he spent hard time "on a brush-cutting crew, in waters up to his knees, with snakes wriggling past, under the guard of correction officers with shotguns. They were known as the Bossmen."

DNA testing, which Johnson had requested for several years, was finally done and showed that he had not committed the rape. He was released in 1999, after 16 years in prison. His parents had spent much of their money on his legal bills, and his mother had a serious stroke just months before his release.

Ronald Williamson, a white man, was a star athlete in his Oklahoma high school. But mental illness and other problems ended his career as a professional ball player. He developed alcohol and drug addictions. While in jail for passing bad checks, he had contact with a woman who later claimed that he had confessed to a murder. A "jailhouse snitch," the woman had already helped send another man to death row.

Williamson adamantly denied guilt, but was convicted and sentenced to death. He spent many years on death row. Taunted by "a few of the more sadistic guards," he screamed for hours at a time: "I did not kill Debbie Carter. I am an innocent man." At one point he was only five days away from execution when he received a stay. DNA testing finally cleared both Williamson and his friend, Dennis Fritz, who had been sentenced to life in prison for the same crime. They were released in 1999.

The authors describe a West Virginia crime-lab technician who repeatedly gave false testimony that helped convict many people. They mention the "king of the drive-by autopsy"--a Texas medical examiner who wrote reports on bodies he had not examined. When a few police and prosecutors started checking his supposed autopsies, the authors report, "they dug up seven bodies and found none of them had incisions."

Deceit and incompetence in the judicial system may harm many people beyond those who are wrongly convicted. Actual Innocence notes five cases in which innocent men were accused or convicted--and the real criminals were serial rapists or killers, or both. So while an innocent man serves time in prison, the guilty one may be out raping and murdering more victims.

The authors make many practical suggestions for improving the judicial system and protecting the innocent. They want prompt DNA testing; videotaping of all interrogations and lineups; crime labs that are independent of police and prosecutors; higher standards and better pay for public defenders and court-appointed lawyers; and other changes.

Anyone who worries about justice in general should read this book. So should anyone who is undecided about the death penalty.