Hacker News new | comments | show | ask | jobs | submit login
How Two Newspaper Reporters Helped Free an Innocent Man (theatlantic.com)
62 points by danso 1483 days ago | hide | past | web | 30 comments | favorite

So the wrongly accused man was physically in jail at the reported time of the murder, and yet the system moved forward to imprison him for nearly two decades...because of this:

> There was a lot at stake for the detectives, who said all eight defendants had confessed. Because all of them had implicated Daniel in the murders, if Daniel’s confession were to fall apart, the rest of the case would be in jeopardy.

I think this is a sobering anecdote to remember when wondering why a bureaucratic decision has been made despite flying in the face of pure logic and science.


> A check showed that, in fact, Daniel had been arrested for fighting in a park that night at about 6:45 p.m., and jail records showed he was released about 10 p.m. and the murders occurred at 8:43 p.m.

That should've been the end of it. The. End. How did NO ONE involved in the mechanics of this case (the judge, lawyers, etc.) note this fact and immediately release him? Were they relying on the fallibility of police records? Did they say "oh, well, it says he was in jail but maybe the clock was off"? Is there a counter-fact being withheld here?

I just seriously don't understand how something this clear-cut could've escaped everyone's attention. It hurts my brain.

It would probably help to live there and do the job of an investigator. I would imagine (since I don't live there or do the job) that they learn to see vey few people in certain neighborhoods as truly innocent. If you feel that all of the people you charge have gotten away with crimes in the past then it may not seem like a big deal to put them in prison. It may seem like you are cleaning up the neighborhood.

So, when a prosecutor / detective blatantly ignores contradictory evidence and end up putting an innocent person in jail, why do we not treat that as a crime? There are a number of obvious cynical answers to this, but seriously, does anyone know of prosecutors / detectives that have been charged in cases like this?

I came across a long writeup on the murder conviction of Michael Morton[1] which relied heavily on withholding evidence from the defence, and lying about it under oath. Upon his exoneration (after serving ~25 years), an inquiry was held, and the prosecutor is currently facing criminal charges[2]

In what might be the most offensive part, his defense appears to be immunity under the Statute of Limitations, since it was back in 1986. Quite a risky defense, I imagine, given (AIUI) the exemption for "Fraud upon the Court", and the perverse incentive to ensure the wrongly imprisoned stay there long enough that you are immune to criminal charges. Civil redress is presumably available, but I can't imagine what 10-20 years of wrongful imprisonment is worth[3] that doesn't lead to immediate bankruptcy.

[1] Note: LONG. http://www.texasmonthly.com/story/innocent-man-part-one?full... & http://www.texasmonthly.com/story/innocent-man-part-two

[2] http://m.statesman.com/news/news/local/ken-anderson-court-of...

[3] $80k/year for Texas, according to the end of article in [1], but presumably from the state itself, rather than the individuals involved.

It does happen, but its rare. You have to remember that the whole criminal justice system operates in the context of large numbers of guilty as fuck defendants who file endless appeals and petitions to get rock solid cases overturned. That's the rule, cases like Daniel's are the exception. So prosecutors and investigators have broad immunities, with high bars for overcoming them. Otherwise, they'd be constantly subject to litigation.

Remember, this reporter got hundreds of letters from convicts and followed up on this one. Remember also that in real life, the facts aren't laid out for you like a newspaper article.

When a review of a case finds that the prosecution knowingly withheld evidence that actually proved the client could not have been there, the facts pretty much speak for themselves. This should have led directly to criminal charges.

You're focusing on one case instead of looking at the whole thing as a system. What's the standard of proof for establishing that it's knowing and not inadvertent? Who "finds" that the prosecution knowingly withheld evidence? You can't have official legal "findings" until you institute a law suit, so what's the bar for instituting a law suit and how do you set that bar high enough to keep prosecutors from being inundated with lawsuits by every criminal they put in jail?

It's a cost-benefit analysis. What's the benefit of reducing the error rate of the system versus how much does it cost to achieve that reduction?

The whole thing as a system requires it to 'police' itself internally, because we don't have enough information to be able to do it effectively (i.e., file lawsuits with 100% accuracy). I'll say it again - when a case review finds withheld evidence that led to a wrongful conviction, this should lead to immediate criminal charges from within the system - no lawsuit should have to be filed from the victim. If it was unintentional, let the jury decide. This is how the rest of us get treated.

I disagree that this is simple cost-benefit analysis. This is about the integrity and trustworthiness of the system, and it's not worth writing off a whole bunch of people to make the wheels squeak less and clean up easier when they grind up an innocent person's life. It needs pressure from the outside to reform itself from within.


I guess I'm asking for the justice system to do a better job policing itself and start treating transgressions like this as major offenses that threaten the system itself. But considering human nature, this is unlikely. There is an interesting book called 'Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)' which has a chapter dedicated to this kind of behavior in the justice system.

Exactly, sending a handful of unlucky prosecutors to jail for a few decades pour encourager les autres would clearly be worth it on the whole to protect the integrity of the system.

If that was the cost it would be peachy. What we're talking, instead, is about no prosecutor ever being able to do their job because they'd be constantly flooded by litigation claiming that this or the other thing amounted to prosecutorial misconduct.

Could you just make it contingent on the person who was imprisoned making a successful appeal - which I'd imagine would be their initial priority anyway? You get off for something that you were put away for, then you can sue for misconduct....

You can't have official legal "findings" until you institute a law suit . . .

You can have official legal findings whenever the system says you can have official legal findings. One option would be to close the loop and have the system prosecute itself (plenty of precedent). There are others.

Reinforcing the reliability of the system directly reinforces the legitimacy of the state's monopoly on violence - and that's an exceedingly big deal. Perhaps the cost-benefit analysis doesn't fall out in that direction, but I'm wary of that idea without a lot of evidence to back it up.

So some journalist writing an article should constitute legal findings that can trigger a lawsuit?

. . . I don't recall mentioning journalists? I also wasn't aware that journalists could unilaterally free convicted felons.

I think the state's own findings are quite sufficient. The trick is to incentivize their use without unduly obstructing other operations of equal importance.

A state engaging in an official process of finding the facts is called litigation. What should be sufficient showing to trigger this litigation against a prosecutor? In this case, it was a journalist writing an article. So you're basically saying prosecutors should be subject to litigation based on articles by journalist.

I'm well aware of the mechanics, thank you.

The state has already satisfied itself sufficiently to reverse a murder conviction. If the investigation that led to that course of action was causally descended from an article written by a journalist - what of it?

If you believe that the actions taken by the state up to this point were unwarranted, say so explicitly. Otherwise, please recognize that I am not talking about journalists here.

I just listened to this last night: http://www.thestory.org/stories/2013-06/scott-hornoff

An innocent cop went to prison for 6 years until the murderer came forward with a confession. There was basically no evidence to put him away, but he was having an affair with the victim at the time, which made him suspect number one. The part that really upset me was that he was basically unemployable after he came out. He was awarded $600k in backpay when released, but $200k went to his lawyer and the rest to his ex-wife.

I don't understand why people have to pay lawyers if they are found not guilty. At any time, I could be accused of anything at all, and regardless of being innocent, I lose boatloads of money from defending myself?

Thats why most people plead guilty and don't go to court.

Why would your lawyer even try to prove you innocent if it meant not getting a paycheck?

Many countries provide the lawyer costs of the successful party, and only force the loosing side to pay. In civil suits, this mean that the loosing party pays the winning sides lawyers.

Of course, lawyers can only demand "reasonable" pay through that system. That means above average pay, but not 1000x.

I mean, have someone else pay for it. The accuser or the government.


Another classic is Errol Morris's The Thin Blue line, which pioneered the reconstruction technique seen in many documentaries and non-fiction crime shows that followed.

Anyone know the content of the deleted comment?

S/he was recommending Ken Burns's Central Park Five documentary that also reinvited scrutiny: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2380247/.

Reminds me of the classic James Stewart film Call Northside 777 [1], about two Chicago men falsely imprisoned for a murder during Prohibition. The real-life case it was based on ([2]) hinged on a witness identification that occurred a day after the same witness had not recognized the suspect just after arrest; the police then recorded the suspect has having been arrested the second day and omitted the failure from the record.

Both men stayed in prison until a newspaper reporter discovered the case, just as in this article; in fact, one of the men was not released until several years after the movie was made.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Call_Northside_777

[2]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Majczek_and_Marcinkiewicz

A sobering factoid :

  Cook County itself has had 92 known exonerations since 1989 – far more 
  than any other county in the country — and, as we saw in 2001, it has a 
  special affinity for false confessions. Nearly 40 percent of Cook County 
  exonerations involved false confessions by the exonerated defendants 
  (35 of 92), and an additional 16 percent were based on false 
  confessions by codefendants.

Can we start prohibiting confessions from admissible evidence now? I don't care how convincing the story is, unless the confession itself can lead to actual physical evidence, it should be completely discounted.

Meanwhile, the prosecutor and the detectives involved are not charged with conspiracy.

Applications are open for YC Winter 2018

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | DMCA | Apply to YC | Contact