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This is what it's like for an innocent man to spend thirty years in jail (esquire.com)
356 points by iuguy on Feb 27, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 133 comments

This story reminds me of how little most of know about what it means to suffer.

I can't even begin to imagine what it must be like to be going innocently about your own business, getting pulled over by a traffic cop, and then suddenly being hustled off into a hellish pit for nearly 30 years - voiceless, helpless, and forgotten while being robbed of everything normal in adult life and while bearing the stigma of child molestor.

We all plan for the perfect lives and then complain when things fall short. Well, in our sheltered little worlds, we have no idea what it means to get kicked in the teeth non-stop over the course of a lifetime. This story gives us just a little glimpse and we can all shudder just thinking about it.

I have nothing but the highest admiration for anyone who could endure all this and still emerge with the abiding spirit that Mr. Towler now displays. It is a small miracle that he is not broken, bitter, and vengeful. Let us hope he can still rebuild his life from its broken fragments.

As someone who works on investigations into such offences; this weighs on my mind constantly.

There are perhaps one or two cases (out of several hundred) that still have me lying awake at night. In deeper moments of reflection I know I made the right call on them, but I still worry about it, as part of the process of self-assessment. Sadly I don't always see so much concern in others within the same field.

Child abuse is one of those horribly amoral crimes that clouds our personnel opinions, and so often I see prosecutors who simply hate the defendant on a personnel level. That sort of approach sickens me, it is exactly the sort of approach that screwed this guy; from the cop to the judge it was the same problem.

I can't talk for anyone else, but stories like this mean that tomorrow, as with every day, I make damned sure I am certain of what I find out. To the extend of putting my own liberty behind what I present. This sort of thing should be required reading in our field...

One thing that has always settled the wrong way with me about television police shows is that they hardly ever approach this topic. I can only imagine what it's like to be a prosecutor or a detective and wondering if you caught the right person. Maybe it's not every case, but as you mentioned, there have to be those one or two where they just keep you awake some nights.

It probably just doesn't make for good television to dwell on this topic. The good guy almost always puts away the bad guy and there's no question about it being the right decision.

I realize cop shows probably portray only a slim resemblance to reality. When I see a show or movie portraying something to do with computers or nuclear reactors there's always that feeling of "that's not how it is in real life!" No doubt, police officers watch the (many, many) shows about their profession with the same thought. However, like it or not, it's these shows that shape the average person's perception of law enforcement. It's the only exposure we get to it, with the exception of maybe being pulled over a handful of times throughout our lives.

Disclaimer: I don't watch any legal shows like Law & Order - maybe they do a better job with this?

In reality a cops job is to find someone for whom the DA can make a case. Innocent or guilty doesn't matter as the ability to make charges stick. A consequence of being driven "by the numbers".

A cops job is to avoid Type II errors or excessive skepticism when investigating wrongdoing. Juries and judges are around to correct in the other direction. Prosecutors arguably lie somewhere in between. That's how the system works and should work. Everybody errs on the side of caution. Cops don't want to just drop investigations and miss finding evidence on people who might be guilty. Juries should be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt, innocence or guilt is their job.

You're talking theory, not actual practice. The problem with the system is that every layer assumes it's the job of some other layer to determine if the person is actually guilty or not.

e.g. http://ac360.blogs.cnn.com/2011/01/07/reporter’s-notebook-re...

Absolutely. My point was it has less to do with the numbers game than the nature of the cops' jobs.

I'm shocked at the jury in this particular case. Both the bit about the beard and the alibi didn't create a reasonable doubt? Many are quick to blame the prosecutors, but those 12 jurors should be ashamed of themselves. There's no indication that the prosecutors in this case lied or concealed exculpatory evidence, or that the defense attorney was asleep during the trial.

Have you ever served on a jury? I have. It's 12 people who would rather be somewhere else and will follow what ever the dominate voice says.

Most of the layers do their own form of "due diligence" though; the problem is that too often that is based on gut instinct rather than facts.

Don't get me wrong; instinct is a crucial part of it. But when there are zero facts to support that instinct it becomes a problem :)

I have nothing but the highest admiration for anyone who could endure all this and still emerge with the abiding spirit that Mr. Towler now displays.

Hear. Hear. What was especially harsh for him is that in the prison environment, child molesters are the lowest of the low, the prisoners who are held in contempt by other prisoners. He had to exercise immense self-control to keep his dignity intact in that environment. No one should have to live with a false accusation of having harmed a child.

They should ban that line "Can you identify the man who did this?"

Original witness statements are the only things that are reliable. After the victim has identified the "perpetrator" from a line-up, they forget the original face, and their memories become re-written to include the face they think is responsible. A friend of mine studying to be a cop knows this (all cops should know this) but they still persist in using testimony that they know is unreliable. Can you blame them though? If they didn't use the line, it would be much harder to get a conviction.

Courts should just read a description, one that was made before the victim (or interviewing officer) has seen the suspect they dragged in. Or the police should get a sketch (or computer sketch) of the assailant before anyone involved has seen any possible suspects.

The entire damn process should be changed, I sincerely hope these are not actual quotes because some of these questions are so incredibly leading, it's ridiculous that they're allowed especially with children involved.

You get a child to admit to anything with the right words and authority, surely everyone knows this!

The same language used by lawyers and prosecutors are the same words they hear on TV when the ads roll. Are you surprised?

Very relevant story this week on 'This American Life' about a guy who spent decades in prison because a teenager randomly identified him from a stack of photos just to get the cops off his back. http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/282/d...

> Original witness statements are the only things that are reliable.

Even those aren't that reliable; memory is fallible and people remember things wrong all the time. Statements give you nothing more than a vague idea of what might have happened.

I think it's as simple as this: witnesses aren't reliable. When you think about how often you turn out to remember little details wrong, it's clear that more often than not you'll pick out the wrong man in a lineup - especially when so traumatised.

Lineups should be replaced by facial reconstruction - get the victim to sort out what the face looked like, then see if it looks like the suspect.

Think of how it must be for the 4 people on the stand who answered yes. They were likely shown a few pictures along with the implication that they were "usual suspects", one of which was almost certainly the culprit. They'd probably seen all of about 5 real-life "people of color" in their lives and simply picked the closest looking one to what they remembered. The system then automatically worked to assure them that this was the guy. Over time their memories sloshed together with the picture and the guy on the bench and then they were sure of it.

But now they know that they were 100% wrong and their testimony cost this guy his life. That's a tough one to live with.

[Disclaimer: aerospace industry veteran]

When a plane crashes, it is standard procedure to determine exactly what went wrong, what weaknesses in the "system" enabled what went wrong to go wrong, what prescription is needed to fix that system, and for the system to be fixed.

This was a plane crash.

I know this article was about one man, but there's no mention of anything about fixing what must have been broken in the first place. Sadly, I fear, because it doesn't exist.

From the founder of the Innocence Project:

  What are other countries doing to improve their criminal justice systems?

  Canada is the first country in the world to have "innocence commissions".
  What they do is truly marvellous. They will perform a post-mortem on the
  case of a man who was wrongly convicted and find out what went wrong and
  what they can do to reduce the likelihood of it happening again in the
  future. That is what you do in science, that's what you do in medicine,
  that's what you do in every other institution where life or liberty is at
  stake. We don't do it in the US when it comes to criminal justice, and that
  is appalling.

It seems so obvious. Why don't more countries do that ?

Justice is not perceived as a service rendered to paying customers. Misbehaving policemen, prosecutors and judges have legal armors that makes it nigh-impossible to punish.

Would that I have had two votes to give...

Wait, what do you mean?

He means "wish". He wants to upvote you twice.

His comments show he is from Canada. I guess that explains his strong approval of the quote. :)

Here, take mine.

Instead, we handle this the way the Obama administration chose to handle the financial crash - by saying it was best "to just move on."

I heard the FAA analogy when this (terrible) policy direction was becoming clear. The commenter observed that handling airplane failures with the same carelessness that we were applying to the banks would mean that no one would every fly.

The problem with similar carelessness in the justice system is that you really can't avoid it by opting out.

Well, the change that prevents this from happening again is DNA evidence.

Definitely the human factors that caused this will still complicate things, but at least the most egregious kinds of cases can be prevented.

The DNA got him released in the end but it's not the problem with the system since there are cases with no DNA evidence in which people are wrongfully convicted the exact same way he was. Here is a summary of what happened. He is a black. All blacks look alike and are criminals. Therefore he is guilty. This is what went wrong and needs to be fixed, just as with an airplane that leaks fuel and isn't detected because of a faulty fuel readout, the answer isn't to carry more fuel.

Here are some things that are broken.

1. There is a presumption of guilt.

2. Prosecutors are interested in their kill ratio, not justice.

3. Judges are interested in arbitrary exercise of power, not justice.

4. It is very rare to find a public defender who diligently defends the interest of the defense. Public defenders work with the prosecution to get the case through the system.

5. In some jurisdictions elected judges don't need to have law backgrounds, or have demonstrated any competence or knowledge of the law.

6. The prison system is about punishment and exercise of power, not rehabilitation.

1) Agree: Presumption of guilt is definitely a problem. I would assume we could blame prejudices, arrogance (over confidence in pre-judging), or profession apathy for this.

2) Disagree: Prosecutors only caring about their kill ratio is a plus to me. This is what they should be doing. If they slack in any way because they think the accused might be innocent they are taking away the power of decision from the judge or the jury.

3) Wha?: Judges only care about exercising power? This seems like a blanket statement, like an absolute, which are typically wrong.

4) Agree: I would guess that this is the sad consequence of the talent going where the money is. In some states lawyers are required to do X amount of pro bono cases a year. I am sure this helps but maybe there is something else we could do.

5) ?: Do you have examples of this for Judges that oversee criminal court proceedings?

6) No opinion here for the prison system.

  > 2) Disagree: Prosecutors only caring about their kill ratio is a 
  > plus to me. This is what they should be doing. If they slack in
  > any way because they think the accused might be innocent they
  > are taking away the power of decision from the judge or the jury.
What about the prosecutors that do things like test the limits of laws just so that they can be 'tough on crime.' Example are: prosecuting people under wiretap laws for filming the police, or prosecuting teenagers as child pornographers for sending nude images to each other through MMS.

Prosecuting people for filming the police has less to do with 'punishing criminals' and more to do with political posturing with the police force (i.e. you rub my back, I'll rub yours).

Prosecuting teens for 'sexting' is more about: 1) looking good with the locals for being 'tough on crime,' and 2) forcing the prosecutor's morals on other people (i.e. "I don't think that teens should be sexting, so I'll go all-out against them to show them that it's wrong, even of the punishment grossly outweighs the crime.").

  > 3) Wha?: Judges only care about exercising power?
  > This seems like a blanket statement, like an absolute,
  > which are typically wrong.
Read the judges' decision in the teen sexting case in Florida that went to the state supreme court (I think that it was a state-level case and not a federal-level case, where Florida was just were the Xth Federal District Court is located...).

For #2, you have them doing things like hiding exculpatory evidence. I don't think that's what they should be doing. If they find something that proves a guy innocent (e.g. they do a DNA analysis that excludes the suspect), they have no right to hide it just to get a conviction.

For #3, I tend to agree with you, but there are a handful of hang 'em judges out there.

For #5, I don't have any examples because that happens only in a handful of states and the people who appoint the judges usually have more sense than to appoint someone absurd. That said, Supreme Court appointments only require Presidential approval and Congress' consent to the choice. There has been a justice or two that wasn't exactly a highly regarded legal mind, but with the appointments being so contentious these days, in practice, they tend to appoint people with auspicious pedigrees.

DNA evidence should not be used as the sole basis for a conviction. From what I gather, DNA collection and processing is still done on an ad-hoc basis, with no standards and auditing.

But that's sort of how most things work though. The positive, good outcomes are sort of incidental (though hopefully intentional) side effects of a complex system of incentives that are usually not perfectly aligned.

ie, why does Exxon Mobil drill oil? Because they sincerely truly love that black stuff? No because they want to make money.

The system could probably be improved with good economic analysis, but just because the incentives are misaligned does not mean they're broken.

What would Exxon do if they could get away with selling any old blackish liquid as if it were oil?

> Well, the change that prevents this from happening again is DNA evidence.

This is the very optimistic interpretation - another tool and a permanent reduction in the wrongful conviction rate. The pessimistic interpretation is that DNA tests served as a short-term oracle where the system nigh-magically was stripped naked and its true past error rate laid bare, but to which the system will slowly adapt and figure out how to circumvent.

We can probably expect in a few decades to start seeing articles about how DNA evidence gets lost, misinterpreted, planted (remember OJ and the issues with the blood evidence? more than a few police have no issues with framing a guilty man, it seems), and other such strategies that are not obvious to people outside the system.

In other words, if there were suddenly another nigh-magical breakthrough which gave us a second look at true error rates, we would see, superimposed on whatever other trends are going on, a dip in the '80s-'90s and then a slow increase to whenever the second breakthrough's innocence projects got going.

Unfortunately, this is a very long-term prediction and there may never again be a breakthrough as dramatic as DNA testing which would give us the second oracle, so who knows if time will let us distinguish between the optimistic and pessimistic interpretations.

(Related ideas: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Risk_homeostasis & http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goodhart%27s_law)

Don't be sure that having DNA evidence will mean there will never be a miscarriage of justice. So many reasons that can still happen.

I think you need to go see how DNA evidence is actually used. CSI is not remotely like what goes on, forensics is not any kind of science it's just a kind of "best practices" from cops.


DNA has a lot of issues as well.


The fact that the appeals were denied is eye-opening. Maybe that shouldn't be allowed? But I'm sure there are tons of non-legitimate appeals too.

Exactly right, sad to say.

fully agree. unfortunately systems are as perfect as the people that run them, in this case the rotten judge, attorney, and even the victim really did this man great injustice. you wonder what ever happened to the victim and the real felon.

I don't think that's the whole story or planes would crash all the time because someone somewhere failed to do their job properly after a night out with friends. Checks and balances matter. Process matters. The art of organization is to have an open upper bound of what is possible to achieve and still make sure there is a limit to the downside.

Of course it will never be perfect and there is no process and no rules that can work without a sufficient share of decent individuals trying to do their job properly.

Similar stories:



Miscarriages of justice happen. The real crime is that there seems to be no follow-up, no detailed reports, no proposals for making sure the same mistakes don't happen again.

That's the tragedy beyond the individual cases. It will happen again, in exactly the same way, for exactly the same reasons.

What gets me about this case is that there was little interest in looking at new evidence as it became available, even active attempts from the prosecution to stop the new evidence from being used.

It wouldn’t even be hard for politicians to frame the question of whether DNA evidence should be tested as often as possible in harsh law and order terms: For every innocent person in prison, the real perpetrator is running around free. We want to be damn sure that we locked up the right people!

This reminds me of an episode of the (IMHO excellent) "The Good Wife". In one episode, it was pointed out that people are much better at identifying and describing members of their own race, basically the cross-race effect or own race bias [1].

I'm glad there was finally justice in this matter, even if it was far, far too late. To Mr Towler's credit, he doesn't seem to be consumed by the obvious injustice.

The one part missing from the story was any mention of the (other) victim, Brittany, who would now be in her 40s (if still alive). What were the circumstances behind her identifying Mr Towler? What are her thoughts on the matter now?

As must as we can chastise the judge and the prosecutor in this case, there was an eyewitness account and the alleged perpetrator was identified (albeit wrongly). How would you react to an accused child rapist on trial?

I wonder what happened to the real perpetrator. I wouldn't be at all surprised if he is now dead and was probably incarcerated for other attacks.

So this man spent 30 years in jail for a crime he didn't commit. At the other end of the spectrum, Roman Polanski plied a 13 year old with alcohol, raped her, absconded to France prior to sentencing [2], remains free and is treated as a cause celebre somehow hounded even victimized by the authorities.

It's hard not to look at that and see two different justice systems in play.

[1]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cross-race_effect

[2]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Polanski_sexual_abuse_cas...

In the worlds of William Blackstone

"Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer"


It's such an obvious principle yet so few appreciate it.

Assuming the punishment is about as bad as the crime, then punishing the innocent is as bad as committing the crime. So, what's worse: allowing a crime to go unpunished or committing an equally bad crime yourself?

Additionally, a crime committed by the very institution that is supposed to enforce justice is worse than one committed by an autonomous citizen, all other things equal.

It's so obvious it's vacuous. In order to be able to get many criminals behind bars, you will have to accept innocent casualties. The only way to be sure that no innocent folks are sent to prison is by not convicting anyone. The cost of that solution is obvious and unacceptable. Any principle that ignores the trade-off that must necessarily be accepted is vacuous.

Where did anyone say that no innocent people must be sent to prison? I said that punishing the innocent is worse than not punishing the guilty. But you show that strawman who's boss.

You didn't say that, but Blackstone's original formulation suggested it, if you interpret "ten" as representing an arbitrary number.

1/10 is actually a pretty low standard for wrongful convictions so I don't see why we would interpret what Blackstone said, or even Ben Franklin's 1/100, as hyperbole. They clearly meant that exhonerating the innocent is much more important than convicting the guilty and there is no good reason we can't adhere to that principle in practice.

There is actually a very good reason: given that it is unlikely that we will miraculously find a way to change the ratio of wrong to right verdicts, you can only lower the amount of people wrongfully convicted by lowering the number of convictions. As most convicted people are actually guilty, that means that most of the newly unconvicted people are, in fact, guilty.

Assume that currently 1 person is wrongly convicted for every 10 guilty ones that go free and try. Do the math to change that to 1 in a 100 and be affraid of the consequences of putting this principle into practice.

And again, note that you are not talking about changing the ratio of wrongful convictions to right convictions, because that is highly unlikely: you are talking about changing the absolute amount of wrongful convictions by allowing a larger amount of wrongful exonerations. Because of the ratio of the amount of people involved, the amount of guilty people that would need to go free is staggering. You need thorough Bayesian reasoning to understand this one.

The problem is that even fewer people appreciate more realistic (and with enough additional research, potentially actionable) formulations such as, "We have calculated that it is precisely as bad that 13.37 guilty persons escape, as that one innocent suffer."

This link doesn't load unless you include the apostrophe in "Blackstone's", but HN seemingly does not allow posting of URLs which include an apostrophe (well, a single-quote, that is).


what about 11?

The general form -- and I forget who first said this -- is "Better that n guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer. Solve for n."

This isn't a joke guys. It's an insightful comment to which pjscott responded appropriately.

On a sadly similar note, there is a really well made documentary called Witch Hunt (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1196112/) in which during the 1970s in California, multiple children were coerced into accusing their parents of molestation.

The Salem Witch trials are another great example of this phenomena.

I read a story about Cameron Willingham in the New Yorker a while back:


There's also an article about him on Wikipedia:


That story was incredibly chilling, thank you for reminding me of it. I knew the feeling I got reading this one on Ray Towler was familiar.

It's scary that something like this could theoretically happen to any of us.

"Something like this" happens all the time. Often, you find yourself in a situation where you're surrounded by people who view reality differently than you. If this comes to everyone's attention, then group social dynamics can come into play, where individual views of reality can be challenged by the pressure of a mob.

Most of the time, people just shrug it off, go home or back to their usual community and dismiss this as an aberration. If you are in jail for a crime you did not commit, you face this every day.

Racial prejudice is still a pressure like this. People who live in cosmopolitan areas can go home and shrug it off. People who are isolated and marked as different cannot, so they can see it more clearly. In either case, such prejudices are still with us, but since they've been driven underground, it's hard to know how to deal with them.

Well, most of us are white. So not really.

I am not white myself and have never committed anything anyone sane would consider a crime. Yet I have been picked up and thrown in jail several times. Last time was because I was walking my dog at the park without a leash. I have never heard of a white person arrested for this. If someone was raped in the park the week I was walking my dog there, I know I would have been the primary suspect because that's how this works.

Where do you live? I can't even conceive of something like that happening here in Phoenix, AZ.

Seriously, until I started reading stories like this on the Internet, I thought people were needlessly indulging in fake drama when they talked about racism.

The dog arrest incident happened in a smallish town in the southeast where I was doing some work. It turns out having a dog not on a leash is a Class C Misdemeanor, but it's one of those sorts of laws that even locals don't know about because it's only enforced against people they want to enforce it against. So for a Class C Misdemeanor, which is a pretty serious crime, you have to be booked. At the time I was carrying a US passport which the locals decided was not a valid form of ID, so I was held without bail or hearing until trial. I managed to get word to an attorney I trusted, he had to come in from the other side of the state, and was able to negotiate with the district attorney to allow me to be free until trial by threatening to file a Habeas Corpus. My attorney also acquired from one of my family members a folder with my credentials and newspaper articles and other citations about my company and work, which he laid out for the local authorities there which suggested the possibility of deep embarrassment in the media if they continued with this nonsense. When I returned for trial the charges were rendered "Nolle Prosequi", which means the charges are not dismissed and you're not acquitted or convicted, but you're free to go until they decide to bring you back in, it's sometimes used as a sort of a warning you are not welcome.

This sort of routine, being rousted and brought in on some bogus charges that are never applied to whites, is a common experience among non-model minorities in the USA. It's also very similar to the story of the man in the article. It's obvious to me he did not run the stop sign that was used as a pretense to bring him in for a rape line up.

This story incites anger and hatred in me. I feel powerless against the authorities that did this to you. I don't have an answer to what we can do about this, other than offer my sympathy. I am sorry.

> I can't even conceive of something like that happening here in Phoenix, AZ.

Have you ever read Phoenix news as reported by out-of-state newspapers? I'm guessing that you haven't.

I must admit that I don't read much news at all. What's our reputation?

You're aware that you live in a state where the police can stop you and ask for your papers if you're brown and speaking Spanish, right?

It is my understanding that police must first have a "reasonable suspicion" in order to stop you, and only then under the new law, if they have "reason to suspect" that you are an illegal immigrant, that they are then required to ask for papers.

I wasn't really concerned with that law so much as the one enforcing it. Everyone who tangles with him ends up with legal trouble for some reason. It's a very strange coincidence because it happens regularly.

Police are allowed to take into consideration factors like "race, color or national origin" when deciding whether to ask for your papers.

Those factors, statistically, do have a huge impact on the probability of whether or not the person is in the country illegally.

First of all, I think you are conflating prior and posterior probabilities. P(brown skin | illegal) != P(illegal | brown skin). The standard for a police stop is reasonable suspicion. Do you think having brown skin in Arizona is reasonably suspicious?

But much more importantly, the statistical evidence (which you haven't shown) would only be a consideration if justice were a statistical property. But if justice were a statistical property, there should be no objection to giving police arbitrary discretion to make stops and searches, since statistically speaking it is overwhelmingly likely that a citizen chosen at random has committed some illegal act for which they have not yet been convicted. But somehow that reasoning does not seem as appealing when we are the ones staring down the barrel of it.

The problem with the law is that people who are US Citizens get pestered frequently based on a trait they cannot change. In order to be useful, a test must be sensitive enough to match the trait you're looking for.

Suppose you have a test that could detect something with a 1% false positive rate and which never produces false negatives. Further suppose that the trait you're looking for occurs in 0.001% of the population tested.

Using that test, you would flag 99 innocent people for every guilty person.

I agree that we want to avoid false positives as much as possible, even to the point where we miss true positives.

But the law we're talking about is for after police have already stopped a suspect for a different reason, a reason that is not allowed to have anything to do with skin color.

I think it could still be an issue, however, because officers have been known to stop people for silly reasons, such as "rolling through a stop sign," when they really want to stop them because their skin color looks suspicious. I think this is a problem, it's really hard to fight against. So this is an argument against that law.

There's also a perception problem. If both parties expect to have problems, they probably will have problems. If you get stopped by cops frequently, especially if they're under pressure to justify why they stopped you, well, they can probably find something. And if you get stopped for small stuff (like the walking a dog without a leash) thing enough times, it'll get on your nerves. Doubly so, because there's nothing you can do to avoid it. So it's hard for people to be calm, which doesn't help anyone.

Please don't misunderstand, though. I came here from a small town and, due to unfortunate circumstances, we ended up getting frequent friendly visits from the police. The word "friendly" is not a euphemism. I mean that Darwin and the other guys on the force cared about us and wanted to make sure that everything was okay and that we weren't having any problems. They were great guys. They do a hard job, so when they have a bad day, things can really go to hell fast. So there are a lot of problems and the cops do have to take a lot of crap, both directly and from people second-guessing them. I do understand and respect that, but that's why I care to see that more attention is paid to avoiding perverse incentives in the law itself.

I think you've nipped it in the bud. There are always going to be good guys and bad guys. The best thing we can do (which is actually pretty effective) is set up the system such that the people are rewarded for the good and not for the bad.

Oops. The effect is real, but I typed one of the numbers wrong and the math of my example is incorrect. It's called the "Base Rate Fallacy" if you want to look it up, though.


Many white men have also been falsely accused, imprisoned for over a decade and then released on DNA evidence. If there's anyone that's somewhat protected from overzealous law enforcement officers, DAs and judges, it probably wouldn't be a racial group. It would be women.

And rich people.

The plural of anecdote is not data. Look for statistics relating to conviction/acquittal rates or rates of DAs deciding not to press charges for various crimes.

The very worst thing for your odds of getting let go without prosecution or getting acquitted is being male. Next are being young or black. Being poor, foreign or unattractive(!) also hurt, but to a lesser degree and less uniformly.

Obviously a middle-adged white female can be falsely prosecuted, but it's much rarer than for a random member of the population.

Well, in an ideal world this would happen to all races equally. Wait, that doesn't quite sound right.

But most of us are "hackers" so yes, really.

Though racial discrimination is one of the most visible and widespread forms of discrimination, prejudices can apply to many other, sometimes unprotected classes in which some of us find ourselves. These include age, wealth (against both rich and poor), gender, occupation or interests, the color or make of your car, being a geek, or any other difference. Yes, it really could happen to you.

one of the problems with the justice system that I rarely see mentioned: the literacy level of the public has declined to what? an 8th grade level?

You can not tell me that the logic employed in building court cases is at that level. 12 angry men? In real life there is no juror #8.

Was the literacy level of the public higher in the past? I couldn't find statistics.

I had seen a 12th grade level cited, but I don't think the methodology was rigorous.

I wonder if the (now 41 year old) victim is aware of all this.

I would think it would be impossible for her (and the then-boy) to not be aware, unless they are now dead.

A lot of people look the same to me (unless I know them). They are just faces in the crowd. Because of this, I'd never swear under oath that I saw a stranger do something. Unless the person had a very distinct scar or birth mark or purple hair, etc. that I could vividly recall... honestly I cannot tell them from the next person.

I think most people are like this, but convince themselves otherwise.

I'm exactly like you. Everyone looks the same to me. But my ex-wife is exactly the opposite. We once walked into a very crowded baseball game at Candlestick park looking for a friend who was somewhere in the crowd (we had no idea where). She found him in less than 30 seconds a quarter of the way around the stadium. I think most people are somewhere in between these two extremes.

Esquire's not a magazine I'm particularly proud to be a subscriber to, but articles like this one are what makes it worth while.

They may be a trashy lads mag, masquerading as a high-brow product for upper class gentlemen, but for stories like this, few publications tell them better.

Couldn't disagree more. They are so far above Maxim, FHM, Men's Fitness and other trashy magazines that it's not even funny. A lot of times their writing is absolutely spectacular. In particular, works by Tom Junod, A.J. Jacobs, David Granger, Chris Jones are always worth checking out.

Here's a link to some of their best stuff: http://www.esquire.com/features/page-75/greatest-stories

And the best thing is, they haven't lost any of their greatness over the last 75+ years - this was one of the best magazine stories I've ever read: http://www.esquire.com/features/roger-ebert-0310

I think perhaps I explained my view badly.

Spectacular writing, completely agree, that was the point I tried to make with "but for stories like this, few publications tell them better", and that's why I do subscribe to Esquire (both print, UK edition, and iPad, US edition).

However, there is a lot to Esquire magazine that I really don't like, and that is really very comparable to Maxim, FHM and so on. A few examples:

- 'Women We Love' (an excuse to show semi-naked pictures)

- The 'How To...' guides in the middle of the magazine. A couple of examples currently on their website are "How to Get Some on February 14th" and "How to Have Sex in the Car" (and even the boring topics like "How to smile" are generally badly written and fairly pointless).

- The 'Tough love with Tanya Gold' that appears each month..

And I dislike how much it tends to be aimed at middle/upper class people, from the adverts to the content. I'm not sure how much of that is because this is their actual audience, and how much is because their actual audience wants to feel like they are higher in society than they are. For example, I question that the people spending £10,000s on a watch are also going to buy a bottle of £25 whisky, yet you don't see cheap watches advertised, or expensive whisky. Note that, while it may be cheap whisky, it's still whisky - you won't see beer advertised by them, that's for poor people!

Ultimately, Esquire mixes trashy with attempted high brow with some superbe content - and I hope that, like me (and I assume you), there are more readers who subscribe for the great content than there are who subscribe because they want FHM-style content while feeling good about themselves. Somehow, I doubt that's true.

Interesting audience--is there a magazine you know of that aims at the opposite demographic? (I'll take a 1979 Port Ellen and a Casio G-shock any day).

I can't stand cheap plastic watches, but certainly I'd chose a £100-£500 watch and good scotch over a Rolex and a £30 bottle from the supermarket :)

I've never tried Port Ellen, how is it? Shall add to my list for future bottles. If I can tempt you away from Islay to Speyside, get yourself a bottle of Glenrothes some time, even their cheap stuff is surprisingly nice.

I do like Camdhu and Tamdhu; I'll have to give Glenrothes a try.

I highly recommend Port Ellen 30; it's the only "ghost whisky" I've tried, but it certainly invoked a feeling of saudade that such a rich taste will be lost to history. I'd put the taste somewhere between Talisker and Oban.

Wow powerful story, glad to see DNA testing making a difference in a system that will always be hit by bias and other problems.

I recommend Truth Machine (book) too, basically a Sci Fi look at if someone invented a machine that can tell if a person is lieing and how it affects society...


FWIW, DNA analysis is not, itself, infallible:


I love the work of the Innocence Project. I've been a big financial supporter of them. Please donate if you can.

What I'd like to know is, did they ever find/catch the actual perp?

Not hacker news.

In cases like these, _all_ of the people responsible for:

A. convicting him on insufficient evidence.

B. failing to free him on sufficient evidence

Need to be brought in and asked for a reason for why this happened. If they can't come up with a solid reason justifying each action for why this has occurred, and if they do find a reason, remedies for the failure, then they have to serve the victims sentence.

When an airliner goes down, bosses and leaders scramble to find a reason to prevent it from happening again to appease the public, but in a case like this, a fate far worse than getting injured in an airplane crash, they just shrug it off and make a vow to be more careful with this kind of thing.

Better 100 guilty men go free than for an innocent man be jailed. The guys who incarcerated this innocent man better beef up their security systems. Injustice like this needs to be dealt with, and sadly, never will be. the end.

The problem is our legal system is full of perverse rewards - for example, the DA's office and police force probably gets compensated depending on how much "crime" they "control". Thus, putting away people unjustly is rewarded, and they've externalized the negative consequences. They also get to see a parade of people who actually committed the crimes they're accused of, so making the generalization that "everyone who is accused is guilty" is fairly easy.

Plus, the problem with trying to go after all those people is that, in cases like this, many are probably not in the same line of work, have retired or died. Imagine if you took a job where, 30 years after you quit, someone could come after you because of something that might not have been your fault. That's not fair either.

I don't see a good solution to this, other than maybe additional separation of powers - for example, forcing the police and legal system to work further apart and not be rewarded perversely.

Imagine if you took a job where, 30 years after you quit, someone could come after you because of something that might not have been your fault.

If you railroaded an innocent man, tainted evidence, or otherwise brought about a false conviction with massive incompetence, I don't see any problem with people coming after you 30 years later.

You forgot - halted the search for the real monster, because you already found a guy who looks kinda similar.

Sloppy convictions are only good for the guilty.

Incompetence isn't criminal. I think the core problem is the incentives, like someone said. It's even in the design of the system, the DA is supposed to try to convict the suspect.

What about the jury that convicted him? I know that's not criminal, but they're supposed to be the last stand of justice. I find it incredible that they would unanimously discount what his family said and find him guilty. It's a pretty sad evidence of the prejudices of members of society.

The information to jurors is often controlled. You're not told of the outcome of prior failed trials, evidence is suppressed (by either side). Machinations of all kinds can make it tough for a jury to know what the truth was.

A jury doesn't have access to the truth. The jurors generally cannot ask questions; instead, they "watch courtroom TV" and are pandered to and fed material carefully crafted by both sides in an attempt to influence the jury's decision.

I wouldn't crucify a jury unless there was solid evidence that they deliberately convicted someone they knew was innocent.

I think the one watching court room tv is you rather than the jury. Just try and place yourself in the shoes of one of those 12 people who had to decide whether to let the man go free or go in prison for actual life, and make such decision not based on any incentive or interest whatever but your sense of consciousness and justice and see how lightly you will rely on some tv courtroom drama.

I wouldn't blame the jury on this one. They were treated to heart breaking testimony from a small child who was violently raped at gunpoint which culminated in her pointing at the defendant and saying "That is the man who raped me, he is sitting right there." What jury wouldn't convict on such evidence.

What the jury isn't told is that the defendant was rousted up when the word went out to bring in whatever black men they could find in the neighborhood. What the jury isn't told is that the initial report was of a man with face stubble and not the full beard he had when arrested.

Now the jury was told that there were multiple alibis, all of whom were black family members. They can be blamed for that. But really, seeing the little girl point to the man and say she is certain he is the one who raped her she remembers his face quite clearly, are you really going to say you would vote to acquit? Or would you assume the family members are lying to protect their own.

"I wouldn't blame the jury on this one. They were treated to heart breaking testimony from a small child who was violently raped at gunpoint which culminated in her pointing at the defendant and saying "That is the man who raped me, he is sitting right there." What jury wouldn't convict on such evidence."

Evidence? You wouldn't blame the jury on this one?

Fuck that. That's not evidence. That's ignorance.

I blame the jury 100%.

Testimony from the victim is considered evidence in most court systems. I wouldn't expect a jury of average people, especially back then, to be aware of the cognitive biases that made the testimony so unreliable.

I think the core problem is the incentives, like someone said.


It's even in the design of the system, the DA is supposed to try to convict the suspect.

In and of itself that's not a perverse incentive. The system is adversarial: the DA is supposed to try to convict, and the defense is supposed to try to acquit. Plus the defense has a huge advantage, because the burden of proof rests with the prosecution; the defense only has to establish reasonable doubt about the suspect's guilt.

You could argue with it, but it's not an obviously terrible design. The problems are with the implementation, chiefly: (a) the prosecution almost always has vastly better resources than the defense; and (b) judges and juries totally ignore the burden-of-proof rule.

Your last point is the main one. Juries seem to convict based on a preponderance of evidence, not proof beyond reasonable doubt.

I would also argue that if the only evidence is a single eyewitness' testimony, that is not proof beyond reasonable doubt.

The problem is collateral damage.

Determining who in the hundreds of people who may have touched upon the case, is at fault and was intentionally distorting evidence is difficult.

The majority of people, given the knowledge they had at the time, were likely just doing their job.

We, the public, would have to pay for the enormous investigation, which likely would be inconclusive (it's not obvious DNA evidence like exonerated him).

You could, for example, tie certain people to this standard (say the district attorney) but that would cause other consequences - every case that wasn't a complete slam-dunk guilty might get ignored, even if there was sufficient evidence.

(edit: formatting/clarity)

"The majority of people, given the knowledge they had at the time, were likely just doing their job."

Please do not take this as an example of Godwin's Law but I think Nuremberg trials made it clear that 'just doing their job' is not an applicable defense. Of course the magnitude of the acts is way different but the precedent exists.

> Better 100 guilty men go free than for an innocent man be jailed.

This is an awful story, but I'm wary of setting up incentives in such a way that acquittal is the CYA move. People should be held accountable for preventable errors in either direction, but you don't want to make a prosecutor personally afraid to pursue prosecution for a case just because of the possibility that they might be wrong.

The possibility of not having sufficient proof is the underlying bedrock of 'innocent until proven guilty'.

Yes, you do

Better 100 guilty men go free than for an innocent man be jailed

I can't agree with that. I don't feel I can comment on imprisoned for life, but I would go to prison myself for 5 years if that was the price of locking up 100 dangerous criminals for a similar 5 years, assuming they committed relatively serious crimes.

I know the moral high ground is never convict an innocent no matter what the cost, but I personally suspect releasing 100 guilty men poses a huge potential for harm, and I'm kind of a utilitarian.

Three semi-related points:

It's easy to be utilitarian until it's your own life at stake or that of someone you love.

Also, a lot of decent, innocent people wouldn't survive five years in prison with their personality and decency intact.

If 1 in 101 prisoners is actually innocent, that would mean there are close to 23000 innocent people currently in US prisons. I'm not prepared to throw 23000 innocent people in prison without some very good evidence that it truly is worth it in exchange for punishing the guilty.

The trade-off that everyone is conveniently forgetting is that a multitude of criminals are also being convicted based on insufficient evidence. Any thorough skeptic is unpleasantly surprised when he applies the same standards to which he holds, say, psychological research, to what happens in the court of law and concludes that a great many convictions do not stand up to close scrutiny. This becomes obvious in cases of high-profile criminals: when all eyes are on a case, it gets much harder to convict someone.

I'd love to know the information that's being presented here, but it's presented in such a lousy and verbose way that I just don't feel like reading it. Why is it so common for journalism to be faux novelism?

I feel sorry for you, if you think only about "information" and not the presentation of the content. This was a beautifully written piece, and there was nothing "lousy" or "verbose" about it. In my opinion, this was an excellent piece of journalism, and I'm glad that the "long form" piece hasn't completely disappeared.

The guy spent almost 30 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. You can't spend 5 minutes reading his story. Interesting.

I know it sounds deliciously ironic, but I already know the system is fucked up. But the article didn't really draw me in or give me any clues about why what it has to say about the subject is relevant to me.

I mean, we all know that dictators are killing people right now. Does that mean we need to read the stories of their victims' families, and how sad it is? Every time something like that happens?

for the facts just jump to the wikipedia page. this is a narrative to take you through the story from the point of view of the participants.

Thank you, thank you, for posting the print view. One swift backtick and it was ready to read.

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