April 7, 2007
By STAN SIMPSON, Courant Staff Writer
James Tillman's story is still mortifying. A 44-year-old man is exonerated after serving 18 years in prison for a crime - rape - he didn't commit. That a flaw in the justice system ruined his prime and devastated Tillman's family is a scenario that gives me the willies.
Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck are co-founders of the Innocence Project, which works to free wrongfully convicted inmates through DNA evidence. They say Tillman's case is no aberration. There are thousands upon thousands like him languishing in prisons, they say. And here's the kicker: In most cases, the innocent man is an African American, - wrongfully convicted, like Tillman, of raping a white woman.
The Innocence Project, run by the two Yeshiva University law professors, is closing in on its 200th exoneration since the organization started as a class project 15 years ago. The chilling data it's compiling is an indictment of our public-safety and judicial systems and a reminder that we haven't really evolved much when it comes to race and criminal justice.
Sixty percent of the men exonerated by the Innocence Project are blacks wrongly convicted of raping white women. To appreciate the disparity, understand that, according to the Justice Department, black men attacking white women make up only 15 percent of sexual assault cases nationwide.
Back in the day, a black man even looking at a white woman the wrong way could be grounds for a beat down - or lynching. While the mobs of the early 20th century have stopped, if you're a black man accused of raping a white woman today, even if you're innocent you're dead meat.
"All the causes of wrongful conviction will occur in greater frequency whenever it's a black man standing accused of sexually assaulting a white woman," Neufeld said. "It's definitely institutional racism. There's no question. It's systemic because it's happening with such frequency."
Anthony Powell of Boston was released three years ago after serving 12½ years for a rape he didn't commit. DNA evidence and the Innocence Project cleared him, too. He was the eighth man in seven years released from a Massachusetts prison after being found innocent.
Locking up innocent black men has a compounding and debilitating influence on society. Families are destabilized. Victims don't get true closure. And the real assailant is on the loose.
The New York-based Innocence Project has identified the real criminal in 40 percent of its cases, Neufeld said. And in almost every one, that person has committed multiple crimes.
Among proposed reforms are tightening the procedure for witnesses to identify suspects. In too many cases, Neufeld said, the process can strongly suggest a certain suspect. His group is also pushing for mandates on the preservation of evidence and taping interrogations.
Windsor Police Chief Kevin Searles and Aaron Ment, a retired state chief court administrator, said the interconnection between crime, poverty and race is something the legal and crime-fighting communities have not yet remedied. State's Attorney James Thomas has sent a memo to police chiefs, Searles said, reminding them to be more aware of possible suggestive tactics their officers might use interviewing witnesses.
A few months ago, there was a furor in Hartford after a white Waterbury woman filed a police report, falsely claiming she was raped by a black man in Bushnell Park. Some thought the uproar was an overreaction.
Indeed, it was a black thing. Maybe now, we'll all understand.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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