Three men walk free on a historic day for US justice

The quashing of three wrongful murder convictions is a victory for the extraordinary 'Innocence Project'. Rupert Cornwell reports
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It is just possible that Tuesday 4 October 2011 will go down in American legal history. Not for an especially lurid crime, the capture of a most wanted criminal, or a historic ruling by the Supreme Court – but because on that day, in separate corners of the country, three men were released from prison after spending more than six decades behind bars, each convicted of a murder he did not commit.

In Austin, Texas, Michael Morton walked free, exonerated by new DNA tests of killing his wife in 1986. In Chicago, Jacques Rivera left Cook County Jail, having been convicted in 1990 of a gang-related murder on the basis of false evidence from the sole witness to the crime. And in Los Angeles, the 37-year-old Obie Anthony – amazingly bearing no grudges – saw his 1994 murder conviction overturned after it was conclusively shown that the star witness in his case, a pimp, had lied after cutting a deal with prosecutors.

The cases were connected in only two respects. Each was a shocking miscarriage that exposed deep flaws in the way the criminal justice system works in the US. And each of the three men could thank for their release an independent, non-profit body called the Innocence Project, working on the assumption, so easy to articulate but often so hard to translate into deed, that the law must acknowledge when it has made a mistake. Indeed, Amanda Knox, a woman who knows how hard-won such an acknowledgement can be, has professed her own desire to work for the Project one day.

No one knows exactly how many wrongful convictions occur in the US every year, but studies suggest anywhere from 2 to 5 per cent of the country's overall prison population of over 2 million – i.e. anywhere between 40,000 and 100,000 people – may be innocent. Suffice to say that since the Project was founded in 1992, more than 250 people have been exonerated through DNA testing, including 17 under sentence of death. The Project is currently working on 300 active cases, but these are plainly the tip of an iceberg of error.

On Tuesday, three cases at least were brought to a happy end. But the manifold shortcomings of the system will continue – starting with eyewitness mis-identification, responsible for three-quarters of the miscarriages of justice taken up by the Project and subsequently corrected by DNA evidence.

In what may be a landmark decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued new rules in August making it far easier for defendants to mount a challenge to such evidence and the methods and circumstances under which it was obtained.

But not only can dubious evidence be manufactured; solid evidence can be suppressed. Take the Michael Morton case, in which prosecutors withheld a statement by the couple's son saying the father was not the killer. Then there is the surprisingly widespread problem of false confessions, whether extracted by police intimidation or as part of a plea bargain struck by a defendant with prosecutors in return for a shorter sentence.

Other factors that can put an innocent man behind bars include incompetent and ill-paid publicly appointed defence lawyers, and the use of informants and jail stool pigeons, many of them (as in the case of Obie Anthony) only too ready to provide suitably damning evidence in return for a reduction in their own term.

Then there is junk science, of the kind that may have led to the actual execution by Texas in 2004 of an innocent man. The case of Cameron Todd Willingham, convicted of killing his three young children by arson, may yet come back to haunt the current presidential campaign of the state's Governor Rick Perry, who allowed the capital sentence to be carried out despite overwhelming evidence that the crucial forensic "proof" of arson provided by expert witnesses at Willingham's trial was worthless.

And a mistake, once made, can be desperately hard to undo. No one likes to admit they have made a mistake, and least of all a criminal justice system, that is supposed to be the embodiment of the majesty of the law. Nor is it always easy to persuade public opinion, obsessed with "law and order" and "putting bad guys where they belong", that a miscarriage of justice has taken place.

At which point enter the Innocence Project. Founded in 1992 as part of the Cardozo School of Law in New York City, it is an independent non-profit body, originally set up by two lawyers, Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck.

Ironically, Mr Scheck first became famous as a member of the defence team at the 1994/1995 trial of O J Simpson – not the most obvious vindication of the need for an Innocence Project. But the organisation has flourished, and is now the spearhead of a worldwide Innocence Network, embracing 55 affiliated organisations in the US and beyond, among them the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Chicago's Northwerstern University, whose work led to Jacques Rivera's exoneration.

The Project is not in the business of finding legal technicalities to appeal convictions. It takes on only cases where new scientific evidence might prove a convicted person is factually innocent. Its true stroke of genius, however, has been to harness the energies of college law schools to that end. Everyone gains. Wrongly convicted defendants profit from the skills and efforts of outstanding students, while these latter get real-life experience of how the law actually works.

The genesis of the Project was the advance in DNA technology, with its ability to establish guilt or innocence incontrovertibly. These days that technology is accepted by even the most resistant jurisdictions and appeals courts, and DNA-based cases are the easy ones. Increasingly, the Project and the broader criminal justice reform movement are focussing on other less clear-cut imperfections of the system, including mis-identification and false confessions.

Today, those imperfections are entering the public consciousness. The trend is most visible over the death penalty, where mistakes are irrevocable, and where offered the choice, a majority of Americans now favour sentences of life without parole. "I thank God this wasn't a capital case. I only had life," Mr Morton said on Tuesday. Troy Davis, put to death last month by the state of Georgia despite massive doubts about his guilt, was not so fortunate.

Innocence Project successes

Barry Gibbs

With the help of the Innocence Project, it emerged Mr Gibbs had been framed for murder in 1988 by Louis Eppolito, the New York police detective assigned to investigate his case.

During a police raid years after the conviction, Mr Gibbs' case file was found in Eppolito's house, leading authorities to reinvestigate his continued claims of innocence. Eppolito was later convicted of carrying out eight murders for the Mafia.

After 17 years in jail, Mr Gibbs was released in 2005. He won a $9.9 million (£6.4 million) settlement – New York's largest ever civil rights payout.

Dennis Fritz and Ron Williamson

In 1988, Ron Williamson was sentenced to death and Dennis Fritz to life in prison for the rape and murder of a 21-year-old waitress in Oklahoma six years earlier. A key witness statement from a man named Glenn Core claimed Mr Williamson had been at the bar where the victim worked on the night of her murder. After Mr Fritz appealed to the Innocence Project for help, DNA tests revealed sperm samples from the crime scene did not match the profiles of Mr Fritz or Mr Williamson, but did match that of Glenn Core. After serving 11 years each – during which Mr Williamson came within five days of being executed – they were exonerated and released in 1999.

Kenny Waters

Mr Waters was wrongly found guilty of murdering his neighbour Katherina Reitz Brow in Massachusetts in 1983. The conviction was based on a statement from his former girlfriend Brenda Marsh's new partner, who offered the information two years after the crime in the hope of financial gain. Ms Marsh initially denied the claims but changed her story when police warned that if she did not corroborate her partner's account, she would be charged as an accessory to murder and her children taken away.

Mr Waters' sister Betty Anne firmly believed in her brother's innocence. She put herself through law school and worked with the Innocence Project to ensure the conviction was overturned.

After 18 years in prison, he was exonerated using DNA evidence in 2001. He died six months later aged 47. The real murderer has not been found.